July 2, 2009 in Opinion

A political wife’s refreshing honesty

Susan Campbell Hartford Courant

An indication that Gov. Mark Sanford’s extramarital affair wouldn’t be business as usual was the absence of his wife, Jenny Sanford, from his icky news conference last week.

Add to that her statements of not knowing her husband’s whereabouts and not seeming to particularly care.

Wouldn’t it be something if this ushered in a new era for political spouses, spouses who have their own lives, pay attention to the important things (like family) and don’t wear a frozen smile while they stand behind their husbands (or wives) as they announce the most heinous of offenses?

To recap: Mark Sanford is the South Carolina governor who recently disappeared for a week without telling anyone where he was going. One rumor said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail, but I was just on the trail, and he was nowhere to be found.

(And I hate that “hiking the Appalachian Trail” might become a euphemism for “conducting an extramarital affair.” From my experience, there’s good, clean fun out on the trails and scant little adultery.)

One rumor said he had sequestered himself from his four sons so he could do some uninterrupted writing, although he was gone over Father’s Day weekend, and the timing seemed, at best, off.

Turns out he was in Argentina breaking the Seventh Commandment (the no-adultery one), which might appear to be a regular habit for politicians, but I don’t think so. Plenty of politicians stay true to their marital vows. It’s their vows to the constituency that concern me more, and I say that as a Bible-thumping believer.

But this feels different. I hope it marks a new epoch.

From all indications, Jenny Sullivan Sanford, a former investment banker from Chicago, is smart, and her husband owes her a great deal for his previous successes. That is not a new story. We are trained to applaud male politicians who marry women smarter than they.

What’s different here is that, as Mark Sanford watches his chances at the White House slipping over the horizon and his hold on the governorship grow shaky, his wife says – in a classy way – what most people probably would say.

Where is he? Don’t know. Don’t much care, either.

When asked about the political fallout from Sanford’s extramarital affair, Jenny Sanford said her husband’s political career “is not a concern of mine.” Earlier, when asked about her husband’s whereabouts, she said she was busy raising her children. As a political strategist, Jenny Sanford had to know that the public would read that she was being a good parent, and her husband was not.

After the story became public, she said she had asked her husband to leave their home because she thought it was “important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect and my basic sense of right and wrong.” Good for her. I never understood political spouses – let’s just go with “wives,” because if female politicians cheat on their husbands, they’re at least better than their male colleagues at not getting caught – who stand by their men and put on a brave face and move forward into a bright future-and-so-on. We have no way of knowing what goes on behind closed doors, but I think it’s unhealthy to the extreme to put a happy face on it. I’m not looking for a public smacking, but a little honest, human reaction goes a long way.

So. Moving forward into the bright future, I hope the Sanfords usher in a new, more realistic era for political families. It would do us all a bit of good.

Susan Campbell is a columnist for the Hartford Courant.

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