Back on the Trail

Photo: Chuck Grant

Late last year, a few days before Christmas, former South Carolina governor Mark Sanford embarked on a delicate political mission. He went to see his ex-wife, Jenny.

It was only four years ago, in early 2009, that the couple were approaching their twentieth wedding anniversary and Sanford, a popular two-term Republican governor, was laying the groundwork for a presidential campaign. That was when, one afternoon in the governor’s mansion, Jenny went searching through some of her husband’s work papers and discovered a printed e-mail exchange between Mark and Maria Belén Chapur, the Argentine former television journalist with whom he was having an affair. (A sample of Sanford’s correspondence to Chapur: “I could digress and say that … I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light.”) The rest of the world came to learn of Sanford’s infidelity five months later, at a surreal press conference in the South Carolina capital’s marble rotunda. There, Sanford admitted that he had not been “hiking along the Appalachian Trail,” as his office had told reporters who’d been inquiring about the awol governor’s whereabouts, but rather he had “spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina” while visiting Chapur and “trying to get my heart right.” Sanford’s marriage was soon over—Jenny and the Sanfords’ four boys moved out of the governor’s mansion, and she filed for divorce—and so, it seemed, was his political career. By the time he left office at the end of his second term in 2011, Sanford recently told me, “I genuinely thought that was it for me in politics, and I don’t think it would take a rocket scientist to come up with that conclusion.”

But last December, Sanford says, a “rather miraculous chain of events” occurred: South Carolina senator Jim DeMint announced his resignation; then Governor Nikki Haley appointed as DeMint’s successor Congressman Tim Scott, who represented South Carolina’s First District—the same congressional district Sanford represented from 1995 to 2001 and whose vacant seat would be filled through a special election, with party primaries in March and the general election in May. Sanford began to prepare for a return to politics. The electoral sprint, he realized, would favor a candidate who started with high name recognition and deep coffers, and he has both.

So does Jenny. A former Lazard vice-president who gave up her banking career to raise a family, Jenny Sanford was a popular First Lady in South Carolina. Her political appeal deepened in the wake of her marriage’s implosion, as she became a Palmetto State version of Hillary Clinton, albeit one who did not stand by her man and did write a score-settling memoir. (A sample from Staying True: “Mark joined me at one Lamaze class before deeming it a waste of his time since, as he explained, ‘I’ve spent many long nights helping cows give birth and I know what to do when the baby gets stuck.’ ”) Although she’s never held elected office, Jenny had been included on Haley’s short list of potential DeMint replacements. When she didn’t get the appointment, people immediately began mentioning her as a possible candidate for the newly open congressional seat. As an heiress to a power-tool fortune, she would even be able to self-finance. There was the distinct prospect of a “Sanford vs. Sanford” campaign.

Since their divorce, the Sanfords have barely been on speaking terms; when they do talk, it’s usually about the boys. But Mark went to meet with Jenny at her house this past December to discuss the congressional race. As he later explained it to reporters, he wanted to be magnanimous. “I sat down with her on the porch,” he told one, “and said, ‘If you have any thoughts about running for this, then I’m out, because I can’t think of anything more disastrous than for a husband and wife to run against each other.” He explained that it was only after he’d ascertained that Jenny wasn’t going to run that he decided to proceed with his campaign.

But Mark wanted more than just his ex-wife’s disavowal of interest. When he first ran for Congress in 1994, he installed Jenny as his campaign manager. He did this for reasons of economy—“You’re free,” he told her at the time—but she proved a natural at the job. She blossomed into a shrewd political strategist, running Mark’s subsequent campaigns and becoming his top adviser. Will Folks, a former Sanford press secretary, says, “There’s absolutely no way he would have ever won the congressional seat or been governor without her.”

Jenny Sanford at the governor's mansion, 2010.Photo: Anne McQuary/Hey Baby Smile

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.

Sanford's fateful 2009 press conference.Photo: Anne McQuary/Hey Baby Smile

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?”

Mark Sanford’s comeback has been made significantly easier by his opponents. He faces fifteen other candidates in the March 19 GOP primary, none formidable. (If no candidate gets 50 percent of the vote, the top two finishers will compete in a runoff on April 2.) Teddy Turner, a high-school economics teacher and the son of the billionaire, has spent much of the campaign reassuring Republican voters that he’s not as liberal as his father—to say nothing of his former stepmother, Jane Fonda. “You can’t pick your parents,” he told a Republican group in Hilton Head, “and you can’t pick your parents’ wives, either.” Chip Limehouse, a rotund and dim state representative whose father is a prominent Republican, is nicknamed “Tommy Boy,” which, one Sanford ally quips, “is kind of unfair to Chris Farley.” The entire slate running against Sanford seems to be competing to fit the most references to “commitment,” “faith,” and “family”—as well as pictures of their smiling wives—into one 30-second commercial. Assuming Sanford does win the GOP primary, his Democratic opponent will almost certainly be Elizabeth Colbert Busch, a Clemson University administrator and first-time politician whose main selling point is that she’s Stephen Colbert’s sister. “This is almost a free shot for Mark,” one prominent South Carolina Republican says.

There is really only one person who poses a serious threat to Sanford’s campaign. “Clearly Jenny has the ability to determine whether Mark wins or loses this race,” says one Sanford associate, who spells out two scenarios. “If Jenny went out there and said, ‘This man caused me humiliation, he put me through emotional hell, but we’re all human, I think he’s genuinely sorry for what happened, and there’s nobody in this field who’d make a bigger difference in Washington,’ then he’d win hands down.” Conversely, the associate posits, “If she said what hasn’t been told is just how cruel he is and how self-centered he is, and how he knew this was going to cause pain to me and the kids and it didn’t matter to him, she’d automatically sink his campaign.”

For now, Jenny’s strategy appears to be to stay out of the race altogether. She turned down an offer from one of Sanford’s primary opponents to manage his campaign and has, so far, refused to endorse any candidate in the race. Her ex-husband and his campaign team continue to eye her warily, afraid to say anything that might set her off. “Mark’s too smart a guy not to realize the power that Jenny holds,” says the Sanford associate. “I think he’ll be sensitive to what she’s sensitive to.”

And then there’s the other woman in Mark’s life. Last summer, he and Maria Belén Chapur became engaged. The fact that their relationship endures and is now in fact headed toward marriage, is an important talking point in Sanford’s favor among his supporters. “Not to make excuses for what he did,” a Sanford friend says, “but this was different from the Spitzer stuff or the Clinton stuff. It wasn’t the typical politician’s affair kind of scenario.”

And yet Sanford remains squirrelly about Chapur. When I asked about wedding plans, he tensed up and looked at my tape recorder. “I’m not gonna make news on that front,” he said. Would she be joining him on the campaign trail? “Again, I’m not going to make news on that front.”

Chapur is in her mid-forties and has two children from her first marriage; she still lives in Argentina and rarely travels to South Carolina. “It would be difficult for the two of them to go to dinner somewhere in Charleston and not cause a scene,” Chad Walldorf, a Sanford friend, says by way of explanation. Instead, Mark visits her in Buenos Aires and occasionally in New York and Miami. Prior to his reentry into politics, people close to Stanford thought he might move to Argentina.

Sanford maintains that the crucial mistake he made in his marriage to Jenny was asking her to play the role of political adviser—that, by doing so, he drained the romance out of their relationship, and it became, in his mind at least, a business marriage. Even in the midst of the adultery scandal, he was still leaning on Jenny for political guidance, calling her right before the press conference to consult on the most politically expedient thing to say. (Her advice: “Be honest and get it over with. Whatever you do, don’t talk about your heart.”) In his relationship with Chapur, he is trying to learn from that mistake. “I’m anybody but the guy to take marriage lessons from,” Sanford says, “but you want to treat that marriage as something special and unique and guard it and protect it in a way that I did not.”

His protectiveness is considerable. Few of his friends have met Chapur more than a handful of times. “Mark’s just very private about Maria Belén,” says one, who has met Chapur once. “He doesn’t bring her up, and I don’t ask.” According to a friend of the Sanford family, three of his sons have yet to be introduced to their future stepmother.

One evening in February, Sanford appeared at a technical college in Beaufort for a candidate forum. It was the end of a long day, filled with stump speeches and interviews, and Sanford sunk into the overstuffed chair, donated by a local furniture store, that was set up onstage. Sitting across from a state representative, who was serving as interlocutor, he fielded questions that had come from the audience and which she read off file cards.

Most dealt with nuts-and-bolt issues, such as military spending and the creation of a federal sales tax. One questioner wanted to know whether Sanford thought “career politician” was “a derogatory term.” Of course it was, Sanford replied, reminding everyone that he had “self-term-limited” during his first stint in Congress—but also explaining that his previous congressional service offered him an advantage over the other candidates, since he’d keep his seniority and “jump ahead” of current congressmen who’d served fewer than six years. “This is very important in terms of the committee assignments you get and in terms of actually having the leverage to deal with leadership,” Sanford said, lapsing into Washington-talk.

Wherever possible, Sanford steered his answers toward his own difficulties. At one point, he began talking about the importance of empathy. “Unless you’ve felt pain at some level of life, whether it’s self-imposed or otherwise, I don’t think you have the same level of empathy for people who have gone through some level of suffering,” Sanford said. “I empathize with people at a level that I never did before in part because of some pain in my own life.”

Empathy is a dominant theme of Sanford’s campaign, and it came up in my own conversations with him. “I would argue, and again I’m not recommending the curriculum to my worst enemy, but if one fails publicly at something, there’s a new level of empathy toward others that could not have been there before,” he told me.

When I asked Sanford how that new empathy had changed his views on public policy—whether it had made him, for instance, more inclined to support public-assistance programs he’s long denounced as unnecessary—he said it had not. “Convictions are convictions,” he explained. His empathy is for other public figures recovering from sex scandals and personal humiliations. “I used to open the paper and think, How did this person do that? Now it’s all, But by the grace of God go I.

His own embarrassment having dissipated (and processed into a talking point), Sanford is just beginning to absorb the other major fallout of his affair: his loss of Jenny. When he showed up on her porch last December, it was his final try in a years-long effort to somehow make room for both Jenny and Chapur in his life. His infidelity notwithstanding, it seems he never considered ending the marriage. Even after Jenny discovered the affair, he tried to find some middle ground that would allow him to preserve both relationships, begging for his wife’s permission to have visits—albeit non-conjugal ones—with his mistress. (On one occasion, for a trip to New York, Jenny granted it, on the condition that a friend serve as chaperone. “Sleep well,” the friend texted Jenny at the end of the evening. “He played by the rules.”)

This is the first campaign Mark has run without Jenny by his side and as his manager. Many of his old aides and allies have also declined to join him. His family, new and old, is looking on with some combination of disinterest, disapproval, and disbelief. And yet Sanford appears to be on track to winning—and enjoying himself for the first time in years. He swears his ambitions don’t go beyond Congress: “I’m not running for this office, so that I might get to another office.” But it’s also clear his self-confidence has been more than regained, and that he believes his new message, combining fiscal frugality and personal redemption, makes him a more formidable politician than ever.

A few hours before his appearance in Beaufort, Sanford was holding a question-and-answer session at a nearby retirement community. An elderly man grabbed the microphone and told Sanford that he’d seen him a few months back wow the host on a cable news talk show: “You blew him away with your intelligence, your common sense, and as the show was ending, he said, ‘You are really intelligent.’ ”

“I’m tensing up,” Sanford interjected. “There’s a ‘but’ here.”

The elderly man continued, “If we accept that as a fact, and considering how politicians are perceived in this country, why are you running for office?”

The seniors laughed and Sanford did, too. “Uh, well, I think I’ve already demonstrated the fact that I’m not entirely intelligent in all ways,” Sanford said to even greater guffaws. He paused for a moment to let the laughter subside. Then he started up again. “Going back to the reality of our shared human experience …”

Back on the Trail