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Back on the Trail

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Jenny Sanford at the governor's mansion, 2010.  

According to Jenny, she had already told Mark she would be taking a pass on the race the day before, at the funeral of a mutual friend. So when Mark came to visit her, he arrived with a proposal. “Since you’re not running, I want to know if you’ll run my campaign,” he said. “We could put the team back together.”

Jenny told him, in so many words, that wasn’t going to happen. Mark made one last appeal.

“I could pay you this time,” he said.

Shamelessness is an occupational hazard in politics and can often curdle into outright obliviousness. But Sanford, ironically, is the rare politician who possesses an introspective streak. As a congressman, he slept on a futon in his office rather than rent a Washington apartment, partly to save taxpayer money but also, he says, “to keep my guard up” against temptation. The stream of supplicants and well-wishers he faced on a daily basis, and the transactional nature of so many of his professional relationships, unsettled him. “Sometimes he would ask me to sit down with him and literally write out a list of who his real friends are,” recalls Chris Allen, a former Sanford gubernatorial aide. Indeed, what made Sanford’s infamous “Appalachian Trail” press conference so compelling was how, rather than offering a pro forma apology for his misdeeds, he put himself on the couch. “The odyssey that we’re all on in life is with regard to [the] heart,” he mused that day, as he struggled to reconcile his commitment to his wife and sons with his love for Chapur, whom, in a subsequent and tearful interview with the Associated Press, he dubbed his “soul mate.” “This was a whole lot more than a simple affair, this is a love story,” Sanford said. “A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.”

Sanford has carried this confessional posture into his current campaign. In between denunciations of the debt and pledges to reduce federal spending, he peppers his stump speech with New Agey self-help talk—digressing on “my failings as a human being,” chronicling his “journey,” and appealing to voters on the basis of “our shared humanity.” While most Republicans try to sound like Sean Hannity, Sanford speaks in the language of Dr. Phil.

“To be honest with you, I totally lost my self-confidence for about a year there,” Sanford told me one day last month. We were sitting at the bar of a Tex-Mex restaurant in Hilton Head, where he had given a talk to a local Republican group, and he was pitching his voice just loud enough to be heard over the cover of “Hallelujah” playing on the sound system. Sanford is 52 with a long, tan face and an impressive collection of worry lines that creep up toward his tousled brown hair. In the typology of southern pols, he’s more a lollygagger than a demagogue. He cultivates a sense of vulnerability. “You can’t not have an abundance of self-­confidence to run for office, to say ‘I think we need to do this,’ ” Sanford said. “And so you go through that …” His voice trailed off.

The timing of Sanford’s fall was especially painful. As a Furman University student in the early eighties, he told classmates that he aspired to be president, and by early 2009, this suddenly seemed very possible. He was an Ayn Rand–quoting, austerity-obsessed governor ideologically in step with the growing tea-party movement—someone, in other words, perfectly suited to lay waste to Mitt Romney in a GOP primary. When Sanford tried to reject about $700 million in federal stimulus money in a dispute with the Obama administration over how it would be spent (he wanted to use it to pay down some of the state’s debt), his presidential prospects gained further traction. “He is the candidate Rush Limbaugh and countless others who embrace the cause of shrinking government have been waiting for,” the influential conservative thinker Reihan Salam wrote in March of that year.

Sanford sought to seize his moment. He traveled across the country to meet with megarich conservatives like Texas real-estate tycoon Harlan Crow and started lining up staff for an as-yet-unnamed national organization. He also took a page from the old playbook of George W. Bush, who in the late nineties ran a virtual shuttle service to Austin as he courted crucial supporters for his presidential bid. In Sanford’s case, he invited prominent conservatives to Coosaw, his family’s 3,000-acre plantation in the South Carolina low country, for what he called the “Coosaw Encampment.” Jim DeMint, Lindsey Graham, The Wall Street Journal’s Stephen Moore—much of the GOP Establishment would sleep in tents or cottages or sometimes in the back seats of cars for weekends of skeet shooting, drinking, and political presentations. One June evening, the GOP pollster Frank Luntz told the crowd at Coosaw that, as one of them recalls, “ ‘Mark should be president.’ Luntz said, ‘Here are 50 words conservatives should use, and here’s how Mark is a perfect microphone for all of them.’ ” A few weeks later, Sanford went off to hike the Appalachian Trail.


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