It all started innocently, the South Carolina governor said, when he and a woman struck up a conversation eight years ago. She confided in him about being separated from her husband and Mark Sanford provided comfort, counseling her to get back together for the sake of her two boys, and because marriage is sacred. He asked for her e-mail address and they kept in touch, he from South Carolina and she from Argentina.
Then, about a year ago, came “that whole sparking thing,” he recalled Wednesday at a riveting news conference. Suddenly, the relationship turned romantic and went into “serious overdrive.” The couple rendezvoused twice, both times secretly. But a third meeting last week would not be so discreet.
Sanford disappeared from his state for nearly a week over Father’s Day, infuriating lawmakers in Columbia and leaving behind befuddled staffers who could only say that they thought their boss was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. But he actually sneaked away from the governor’s mansion in a state-issued SUV and jetted to Buenos Aires, where he spent five days with the woman “crying in Argentina.”
Sanford, 49, a Bible-quoting social conservative and rising star in the Republican Party who harbors presidential ambitions, returned home Wednesday after being spotted at the Atlanta airport to face a national television audience for 20 minutes, offering a rambling and at times tearful apology for his extra-marital affair.
“The bottom line is this,” Sanford said. “I have been unfaithful to my wife.”
After ruminating about the affair with stark frankness, the visibly shaken governor solved a captivating mystery about his whereabouts, cemented his reputation as one of America’s most eccentric political figures and became the latest prominent politician whose hopes may have been undone by infidelity.
During his six years in Congress he turned down his housing allowance and slept on a cot in his Capitol Hill office. A frugal governor, he requires his staff to use both sides of a Post-it note and rose to national prominence this year by rejecting federal stimulus funds for his state, drawing the ire of lawmakers there. He even once lampooned pork spending in the budget by carrying two pigs onto the floor of the state House chamber. (The pigs, apparently, were not housebroken and made a mess of Sanford’s suit and the regal carpet.)
But Wednesday, Sanford stood out for a stunning confession. He said he told his wife, Jenny, of the affair about five months ago. They are effectively separated, with her and their four sons living apart from him at the family home on prestigious Sullivan’s Island near Charleston. The Sanfords recently put the home up for sale, reportedly for $3.5 million, his spokesman said, because they wanted to build a “dream home” at the family’s plantation in South Carolina’s Low Country.
Jenny Sanford, 46, a former Wall Street executive whose grandfather founded a power-saw manufacturing company, did not appear at the news conference and issued a statement saying they agreed to a “trial separation” with the goal of “ultimately strengthening our marriage.”
“We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong,” she said. “I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago. During this short separation it was agreed that Mark would not contact us.”
Sanford Wednesday resigned as head of the Republican Governors Association, but did not say whether he would step down as governor before his second four-year term ends in 18 months.
Over the past year, Sanford said, relationship “developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. … And all I can say is that I apologize.”