Lunch at the governor's mansion with Jenny Sanford

The New York TimesFebruary 8, 2010 

COLUMBIA - There is a tradition here at the governor's mansion, that a first lady leaves her mark. The most recent mistress chose to upgrade the gardens. On this chilly, winter-dormant morning, a visitor could only imagine the springtime blooming of her camellias, hydrangeas and Confederate jasmine, the orange trees in urns at the archway.

A plaque from sunnier times honors her vision. "The Jenny Sanford Wedding Garden," it reads. "First Lady, 2003-2011."

Oops.

"Kind of ironic, isn't it," said the soon-to-be ex-Mrs. Sanford, 47, a frank, blade-thin woman with gray-green eyes, black suede high-heeled boots and a cuff bracelet made from the skin of an alligator shot by her eldest son.

This first lady left another Mark as well: that would be her husband, the South Carolina governor who ducked out of sight in June to spend five days in Argentina with his "soul mate," as he put it in that weepy, unhinged news conference. Jenny Sanford, absent from his side, earned respect as a betrayed wife who rose above her own public humiliation with frosty indignation and terse, precision-target anger.

With Sanford in his final year in office, his wife is publishing her elegant evisceration of a memoir, "Staying True." During a visit with this reporter at the governor's mansion, where Sanford lives alone and where his wife drops by for the rare first lady function, she said she wrote the book in part for their four boys, who remain confused about their parents' pending divorce.

But why expose their father as a laughably cheap, self-absorbed, soulless, cheating first-class jerk?

Jenny Sanford, who conveys a just-us-girls warmth and tartness that doesn't always come through in the book, looked quizzical. "It's not the book that put him in a bad light," she said.

What about revealing new tales, like the time he made her return his gift of a diamond necklace, because he decided it wasn't worth the money?

She pulled a poker face: "Doesn't it show he adheres to his conservative fiscal principles?" (Through a spokesman, the governor declined to comment on the book.)

The day afforded glimpses of a past life: flickers of a first lady's role, ashes of a 20-year marriage. "It feels sad to be here," she said, surveying the property where the family lived for seven years. "It doesn't feel alive."

In the pool house, where eight-point heads of buck shot by the boys are mounted, she spotted moldy ceiling tiles that had crashed to the floor.

"This is still my responsibility, I guess," she said. She resides with the boys, Blake, Bolton, Landon and Marshall, 11 to 17, at their beach home some two hours away.

She strolled by the great lawn, where the couple gave receptions for hundreds, the boys played football and soccer, and where their dog is buried. "Mark had a tombstone put in," she said. "I thought that was odd. Mark's father's grave doesn't have one."

The Mark Sanford who emerges from Jenny Sanford's book and in conversation, is, to put it charitably, an odd duck.

When the couple met in the Hamptons in their mid-20s, he had a summer job in Manhattan at Goldman Sachs and was a graduate business student at the University of Virginia. He was a devout Christian, she recounted, whose father died when he was in college and who had struggled to save the family farm.

She was a vice president at Lazard Freres. A Georgetown graduate who regularly attended 5 p.m. Mass on Sundays, she also lived merrily on the Upper East Side, meeting girlfriends for drinks and date dissections.

"He was naive with me," said Jenny Sanford, settling on the sofa in the mansion library, with family photos scattered about, an oil painting of her husband staring down from the mantel. "He didn't have a lot of experience courting women, let's just say."

Back then, she found him a nice change from Wall Street wolves: wholesome, spiritual, outdoorsy. That was the narrative she clung to, when he refused to say "fidelity" in their wedding vows. "I thought it was refreshing and honest," she said. "What kind of an idiot was I?"

Years later, she said, he would bemoan his lack of dating experience, wondering aloud what he had missed.

They both came from large families - hers is a well-off Irish Catholic family from outside of Chicago. She had few qualms about jettisoning her Manhattan career for a more balanced life, raising children in South Carolina.

Just after the birth of their second son, while she was still in the hospital, Mark, who had been weighing a run for Congress, asked her to be his campaign manager. She was, as he said, "free": not that her calendar was open, but that he wouldn't have to pay her.

She wanted to support him. She did not expect that an unseasoned unknown could win. Jenny Sanford wound up managing his three successful congressional campaigns and his first for governor. She created his budget and schedule, typed thank you notes, rolled out commercials and drafted answers to questionnaires.

"You learn the federal issues and then the state issues, the reporters you like and the ones you don't," she said, with a sly smile. "You learn the cheapest places to buy bumper stickers."

As she writes, their marriage was shaped and eroded by his political career. It was not just the six years they lived largely apart, he in Washington and she in South Carolina with the boys.

"He went instantaneously from being a naive country boy to being always in demand," she said. "The media, the lobbyists, the glare. Everyone wants something from you 24//7, not because of who you are but because of your position." And he, in turn, always had his hand out, asking for donations for his next campaign.

During Sanford's first years as governor, said Joel Sawyer, his former spokesman, he consulted Jenny on policy. "She attended a few meetings with other officials." But she wanted to spend more time as a wife and a mother.

"By 2006," he added, "she made Mark hire a professional campaign manager. He resisted because he always had someone do it for free."

Living with a paper-clip counter had its challenges. Once, noticing that his trademark blue blazer had become so frayed that repair was pointless, Jenny bought him a new one. "He went ballistic," she said, laughing.

The governor, who would later try to say no to federal stimulus money for his state, made his wife return the blazer. "For his next birthday I bought him another blazer. But this time I cut out the tags so he couldn't return it."

She invited the reporter to lunch, walking down marble halls where the Sanford boys had raced on skateboards, antique chandeliers quavering. Gone were the bikes and lacrosse sticks that once cluttered the front porch, appalling some guests as they arrived for state dinners in formal attire.

In the dining room, Chamberlain Branch, the mansion's steward, hugged Jenny Sanford, and asked after the boys.

She glowed. "They're adjusting to school at least," she replied. "Just one B for the four of them!" The rest, A's.

Branch sent regards. "The boys were the soul of this house," he said. "And you were the glue that held us all together."

The governor, he said, "has apologized to us."

She tasted her she-crab soup. "He's got to get it right with the Big Guy," said Jenny Sanford, who starts her days at 5:30 a.m. with devotional readings.

Over the years, she continued, the marriage had its strains, but in January 2009, she thought it was solid. Inadvertently she found a letter from Sanford to his mistress.

"Staying True" describes her agony: How he pleaded for permission to visit the woman in New York. She prayed with him, she said. She screamed. She cried. "I was devastated. How did I not know? Our lives were so entwined." For months, she kept it from the boys.

Women can be trapped in many ways, she said. She felt snared in their very public life.

"Because we lived in this house, a decision to ask my husband to leave was very difficult," she said. "The house comes with his job, not mine. So I didn't have the option of kicking him out. And if I had moved out, I'd be pegged as bringing down his career."

When school ended, she and the boys decamped to the Sullivan's Island beach house, ostensibly for the summer.

Then the governor went missing, a period that included Father's Day. Next, the soul mate speech. The release of explicit e-mail messages. His angels-on-a-pin distinction that other dalliances had not crossed a line.

In December, after the legislators declined to impeach him but issued a harsh rebuke, and a day after Sanford opined publicly that he hoped for reconciliation, she filed for divorce.

She snickered at a future in politics - "I did my time!" - but spoke of enjoying her sons, and maybe starting a business.

What of the year remaining in Sanford's term? After the divorce, will she still be first lady? No etiquette guide exists. "But I'll show up for the Easter egg hunt," she said, "and the Mother of the Year tea."

Asked why Sanford strayed from his steadfast helpmate, the mother of his four sons, a banker who learned to cook venison and pheasant shot by her menfolk, Jenny Sanford hesitated. Her eyes welled up. Then she straightened her shoulders.

"His loss," she replied.

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