Notes on a Scandal
Jenny Sanford opens up to Rebecca Johnson about being a political wife—and the affair that changed it all.
Photographed by Jonathan Becker
Before Jenny Sanford came along, the options for wronged political wives were pretty poor. You could suffer silently (see Silda Wall Spitzer), deny everything (hello, Hillary), or make catty asides about the harlot who caused your husband to stray (Elizabeth Edwards). Then came Jenny Sanford.
Early this past summer, just as the world was savoring the news that yet another conservative Republican politician had tumbled from grace in a manner worthy of the best French farce—“hiking the Appalachian Trail” will never have the same meaning—there emerged an unlikely hero in the mess down in South Carolina. Petite, clear-eyed, strong-willed, pious without being smug, smart without being caustic, Jenny Sanford became an unlikely heroine by telling the simple truth. Her children were the most important thing in the world to her. She had kicked the lying bum out of the house when he refused to give up his mistress, but marriage is complex, life is hard, and if he wanted to try and make the marriage work, the door was open.
Her one-page statement saying as much was written without the help of spin doctors or media consultants. It came from her heart and her head. It mentioned God without making you squirm. The world took note. Newsweek dubbed her a “media genius”; The Washington Post hailed her as “a new role model for wronged spouses.” On television, Diane Sawyer called her classy, praising her “grace in the glare.” While her husband was giving overly emotional press conferences about soul mates and impossible love, Sanford kept her mouth shut and her head down. Just as the scandal was finally dying down, she agreed to sit with Vogue and set the record straight about what really happened in the low country of South Carolina.
The press has portrayed the 47-year-old Sanford as an heiress with connections to the Kennedys, but the Sanfords’ house on Sullivan’s Island, a small, laid-back beach community ten minutes from downtown Charleston, is a modest cinder-block affair, albeit one with million-dollar views of the ocean. The kitchen counters are Corian, the rugs sea grass. It’s a house for boys to knock around in and friends to gather in. The Sanfords are conservative Christians, but they’re not the teetotaling, proselytizing sort. There are bottles of wine on the kitchen counter. Ayn Rand is on the bookshelf, but so is Gabriel García Márquez. The Bible sits front and center on the coffee table, alongside Forbes magazine. “You could be friends with her for 20 years, and she would never bring up the religious stuff,” says her friend Marjory Wentworth, poet laureate of South Carolina and a self-described liberal who once worked for The Nation.
Jenny Sanford has been adamant from the beginning that her four boys, ranging in age from ten to seventeen, are the center of her life. As we sit in her living room on a summer day, that much is clear. Throughout the morning, various freckled and barefoot Sanfords wander in and out, looking for a key to unlock the closet where the surfboards are stored or wondering when lunch will be ready.
For the record, Jenny Sanford and most of her friends were as shocked as the rest of America when they learned about the governor’s affair with an Argentinian divorcée. After all, Mark Sanford was the politician who called Bill Clinton’s philandering “reprehensible” and plastered the airwaves during his last election with pictures of his wholesome-looking wife and four children. “We have all been scratching our heads over this one,” says Wentworth. “If you lined up all my male friends and asked me who would be the most likely to do this, he’d be at the bottom of the list. We all know men who drink too much at a party and flirt with women—Mark was never that guy.”
His wife concurs. Finding evidence of the affair last January in a stack of papers was, she says, a shock. “It never occurred to me that he would do something like that. The person I married was centered on a core of morals. The person who did this is not centered on those morals.” She calls the further revelations about “crossed lines with other women” nothing short of “punches to the gut.” The only explanation that makes sense to her is that her husband is in thrall to an addiction as potent as the one cast by any drug. “Over the course of both pastoral and marriage counseling, it became clear to me that he was just obsessed with going to see this woman. I have learned that these affairs are almost like an addiction to alcohol or pornography. They just can’t break away from them.”
Sitting on her couch in a crisp black linen shirt, scant makeup, and a few pieces of gold jewelry, Sanford appears the model of restraint as she discusses the extraordinary events that thrust her into the public eye. But it was not always thus. “I may seem emotionless right now,” she says. “I am not emotionless. The last six months have been filled with emotion.” But she has had plenty of time to look back and analyze what went wrong.
“I think”—she chooses her words carefully—“my husband has got some issues that he needs to work on, about happiness and what happiness means. You wish it wouldn’t come to a crisis like this, but I think when a lot of men get to this midpoint in life, they start asking questions that they probably should have asked a long time ago.” A former investment banker and a stay-at-home, full-time mother, Sanford doesn’t share her husband’s angst. “Midlife aging is different for men than for women,” she says. “Mark is worried about what his next job is. He worries about making money, running for office again, his legacy. I know my legacy is my children. I don’t worry about that.”
According to his wife, the governor of South Carolina was always a bit of a restless, searching soul. It’s part of what initially attracted her to him. When they met in the mid-eighties, Jenny Sanford (née Sullivan) was working at the hard-driving, testosterone-soaked Manhattan investment-banking firm Lazard Frères & Co. One of the few females in the office, she blazed a trail upward by putting in long hours and learning to set aside some of her innate moral squeamishness. “I loved it, and I learned a lot, but some of the things I learned there about greed and power, I wish I hadn’t.” Such as? “At an early age I had a lot of access to people who made a lot of money. Some lived good lives, some didn’t. But I knew then that working 24/7 and trying to climb a ladder to make more money wasn’t what it was about. I have never thought money is the barometer of your success or worth.” (It’s a good thing Jenny Sanford is not overly concerned with money, as her husband is a fiscal conservative on the micro as well as macro level. Or, as she puts it, “My husband is famously cheap.”)
Growing up one of five children in Winnetka, Illinois, Jenny Sullivan was the studious one, a self-described nerd who did well in school and loved to visit the family’s power-tool factory with her father. (Her grandfather and great-grandfather founded the Skil Corporation.) Had the family not sold the business when she was sixteen, Jenny would have liked nothing more than running that factory. Religion played an important role in the family. As a girl, she saw her father kneel next to the bed in daily prayer. Faith also helped the Sullivan children cope with their mother’s longtime battle with skin cancer and the debilitating treatments she underwent to fight it.
At Georgetown University, the ne plus ultra for brainy Catholic girls, Jenny majored in finance before landing the job at Lazard, where she rose within a few years to the rank of vice president in the cutthroat mergers-and-acquisitions department. Only 27 and beginning to feel burned out, she requested a transfer to the more sedate bond desk. There she followed a time-honored tradition of young working people in New York City by taking a summer share in a house on Long Island. Sanford was not the Paris Hilton of the Hamptons, but neither was she a saint. “I don’t have a wild past, but I don’t have a perfect past. I worked hard, and I played hard. There are things I probably shouldn’t have done, but I was human. The question is what you learn from them.”
One night, when she and a girlfriend needed a ride to a party, a young Southerner appeared at her door driving a beat-up Honda. She doesn’t recall being particularly impressed. “I didn’t think, Wow, this is the man for me, but I thought he was a breath of fresh air. Compared with the typical Wall Street guy, he seemed like an honest, sincere gentleman.” To her family, Mark Sanford was just another of the tall, dark, handsome men Sullivan dated back then. “Jenny never lacked for gorgeous men. She even dated a GQ model in college,” recalls her youngest sister, Kathy Sullivan, an artist and single mother based in Louisville, Kentucky.
Some marriages begin in fire; the Sanfords’ was more of a slow burn. “We weren’t madly in love, but we were compatible and good friends,” she says. “I like to think we balance each other out. I am a conservative at heart, but I’m not passionate about ideas like he is. I am better at making the trains run on time.” When Sanford asked Jenny to get married and move to South Carolina, she didn’t blink. “At heart, I am an old-fashioned woman. If the Lord blessed me with children and family, I knew that would be my calling.”
Charleston, where they made their home, is the Deep South, but it’s also a port city with a cosmopolitan population that welcomed the Sanfords. He began a real-estate business; she recovered from Wall Street by renovating an old house, getting involved with local charities, and playing golf. (Fitness is important to Sanford, and not just for vanity. Apart from her mother’s illness, she had an aunt who died of cancer at 40 and a handful of cousins starting to die at similarly young ages.) The friends she has made in South Carolina praise her for being organized, energetic, and deeply generous with her friendship. “Even when you go to the beach, she won’t just sit there,” says her neighbor and close friend Frannie Reese. “She’s always making plans, getting people to do things.” “She’s the hardest worker I know and one of the best friends you can imagine,” says her friend Virginia Dawson Lane, a Charleston native and the owner of a local architecture firm. “When my father died, she was the first person at my door.”
Within three years of the Sanfords’ move to Charleston, babies started arriving. She had two children under the age of three when her husband surprised her by announcing his plans to run for Congress. “He’s always searching for something else,” she says, “something bigger.” Politics wasn’t her dream, but she was happy to support him, even when he asked her to run the campaign. “I said, ‘Well, it’s going to be a little hard to juggle that with two babies.’ And he said, ‘Oh, we’ll just put the campaign phone line in the kitchen.’ I mean, he didn’t think he was going to win.”
As it turned out, Jenny Sanford liked running a political campaign. “It was fun,” she says. “Campaigns are exhilarating because all sorts of people come out of the woodwork to help.” It also turned out to be surprisingly similar to investment banking. “In both of them, you work 24/7 until the deal either happens or it dies. You can always do more work. There’s always one more voter out there you can get to, one more E-mail that needs to be answered.” Nevertheless, when her husband was on the short list to be John McCain’s running mate, Sanford silently prayed it would not come to pass. Life in the fishbowl that is the governor’s mansion has not always been easy for her or her children. “I am counting the days,” she confesses, “until I can move back to Sullivan’s Island.”
Mixing work and love as the Sanfords did in their campaigns, first for Congress and then for the governorship, might be practical—Sanford likes to joke that he hired his wife because “the price was right”—but it can be lethal to a marriage. Eroticism is fueled by mystery, and it can be hard to feel that about a person who is overseeing the latest returns from the fifteenth precinct. Mix in the daily tribulations of raising four children and extended absences from the family, and maintaining one’s marriage bonds can start to seem like one more line item on a long list of obligations. Jenny Sanford understands that. “Everybody would like an escape sometimes. I’d like somebody 5,000 miles away I could E-mail. It’s not exclusive to men, but I know that isn’t realistic.”
The question is why some men—specifically, male politicians—don’t seem to understand how extramarital affairs poison both careers and families. Having watched the species up close all these years, Sanford has a theory. “Politicians become disconnected from the way everyone else lives in the world. I saw that from the very beginning. They’ll say they need something, and ten people want to give it to them. It’s an ego boost, and it’s easy to drink your own Kool-Aid. As a wife, you do your best to keep them grounded, but it’s a real challenge.”
Mark Sanford has paid a high price for his hubris. Longtime enemies in the South Carolina state legislature have been agitating for his removal, late-night comedians have had a field day kicking around his innermost private thoughts from his E-mails, and Democrats outraged by his initial unwillingness to accept stimulus money for a state plagued by an 11.4 percent unemployment rate have done their best to keep the scandal alive. His wife does not share the country’s derision. Even so, like the rest of America, she and a friend couldn’t resist Googling the woman at the center of the firestorm. “What woman wouldn’t want to know what her husband’s mistress looks like?” asks the friend. (Sanford’s reported verdict: “She’s pretty.”) But mostly what Jenny Sanford feels is sorry for the two lovers.
“Mark is not a bad person,” she says. “What the world saw in that press conference is someone who is struggling. None of us are perfect. We are all trying to do the best we can. I also feel sorry for the other woman. I am sure she is a fine person. It can’t be fun for her, though I do sometimes question her judgment. If she knew the newspaper had those E-mails back in December, why did she want him to come in June? But I can’t go there too much. All I can do is pray for her because she made some poor choices. Mark made some poor choices. A lot of people were brought down by this, and I am sure that is not what they wanted.”
Her willingness to forgive and move forward is probably what has most impressed the world about Jenny Sanford. “I think most women in her position would still be under the covers,” says her friend Frannie Reese. “Jenny wants to go bicycling.” Whether her friends think she should stay with her husband is another question. “I think she will be fine with him or without him,” says Reese. At least one other, who asked not to be identified, thinks the couple may learn something from the crisis. “For too long, I think, Mark has been dead on the inside. Jenny has just lived with it, doing all the work of bringing up the kids and not complaining. She deserves a soul mate, too. It would be ironic if this Argentinian woman was the person who woke Mark up, but if they were both willing to do the work, Jenny could ultimately benefit from that.”
For now, the first lady of South Carolina is groping for the high road and trying to keep an open mind. “If you don’t forgive,” she says, “you become angry and bitter. I don’t want to become that. I am not in charge of revenge. That’s not up to me. That’s for the Lord to decide, and it’s important for me to teach that to my boys. All I can do is forgive. Reconciliation is something else, and that is going to be a harder road. I have put my heart and soul into being a good mother and wife. Now I think it’s up to my husband to do the soul-searching to see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.”