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Back on the Trail

Sanford's fateful 2009 press conference.  

In the immediate aftermath of the scandal, Sanford was able to stay busy, if only because he had to fend off an impeachment attempt. (The state House of Representatives ultimately censured him for bringing “ridicule, dishonor, shame, and disgrace to himself, the state of South Carolina, and to its citizens,” and he paid $74,000 in ethics fines.) But once his term ended, Sanford went into a deep funk. He found it painful to go out to restaurants in Charleston: Diners who once approached him to shake his hand now just gawked. And his phone stopped ringing, as the aides and donors who’d flocked to him before the scandal were now focused on the Republicans who were actually running for president. Jon Lerner, Sanford’s former pollster, and Nick Ayers, the young strategist Sanford had been wooing to be his campaign manager, both wound up working for Tim Pawlenty.

Sanford retreated to Coosaw. “You’re wounded and you step away from life and you want that time alone. It becomes a very spiritual time, a very quiet time. A lot of introspection,” he says. “It’s not very productive in terms of the outer journey but incredibly productive on the inner journey.” Most mornings, he’d wake before sunrise and, at first light, swim in the river that runs beside the plantation. To fill his days, he undertook a host of construction projects on the property, including a bridge and a barn. “After so much destruction, it was really, in psychological terms, emotional terms—I don’t know what you want to call it, but it was really helpful to be building something,” he explains. His most significant construction project was a cottage. When Sanford was in college, his father died of Lou Gehrig’s disease and Sanford hand-built a pine coffin that is buried under an oak tree at Coosaw. Now, not far from the spot where he told his own sons he wanted to be buried one day, he built a pine cottage to house twenty years’ worth of accumulated political mementos and memorabilia—a mausoleum for his political career. His friends feared for his well-being and maybe his sanity. “He was just sort of out there by himself,” says Tom Davis, a state senator and Sanford’s former chief of staff, “almost Thoreau-ing.”

But, Sanford says, “life starts coming back at you.” After a year and a half, he left Coosaw and moved to an apartment in Charleston. He did some commercial-real-estate deals and joined a couple of corporate boards. He popped up on Fox News to offer some political analysis. Then last summer, he took the plunge and traveled to Tampa for the Republican National Convention. He was nervous, even frightened, about how he might be received. On the first day of the convention, he was walking into the main hall when a reporter spotted him. “I’m scared to death, some press guy grabbing me,” Sanford recalls. “And this guy goes, ‘I just want you to know that was the most honest press conference I’ve ever seen in my life.’ ”

Since the divorce, Jenny has lived on Sullivan’s Island, a super-wealthy enclave just across the harbor from Charleston. Now 50, with the rail-thin body and stylish taste in clothing that (along with her marital difficulties) earned her a spread in Vogue a few years ago, she’s eased back into the dating pool. One boyfriend, a handsome venture capitalist, drew considerable notice for the public displays of affection he showered on her at a White House Correspondents’ Association Dinner. She spends much of her time serving on the boards of various charities, and her social circle largely consists of a group of close female friends who live near her home—a Real Housewives of Sullivan’s Island set.

Which is not to say that she has lost interest in politics. She was an early, and crucial, supporter of Nikki Haley during her gubernatorial campaign and remains an influential adviser. (Haley has largely shunned Mark, her predecessor. “The last time I saw her was her inauguration two years ago,” he says.) When friends have asked Jenny why, after her divorce, she didn’t begin using her maiden name, Sullivan, she’s told them that she wants to redeem the Sanford name for her sons; many suspect she intends to do this through holding elected office. The main reason she passed on running for Congress this time, according to friends, was that her two younger sons have not yet left for college.

She expected Mark to take a pass on the race for the same reason. Although Mark explicitly sought and received all four of the boys’ permission—“I told them if they didn’t want me to do it, I wouldn’t do it,” he says—Jenny believes he’s put them in an impossible position. “Of course the boys would like to see their dad succeed at something he loves after all that’s gone on,” she told me. “Having said that, what mother in her right mind would ever want to watch her children see all of their father’s trash rehashed again?” Now that Mark is running, Jenny finds herself similarly boxed in. “She’s furious at him for doing this and she doesn’t want him to win, but he’s still the father of her children,” one of her friends says. “Does she want her sons to always think of her as the person who prevented their dad from getting back on his feet?”