For so long, Mark Sanford was the punch line. Then he seemed to disappear, to take that Appalachian Trail, the one he fibbed about hiking along, into the sunset. Well, it turns out Argentina was the destination all along. Clarin, a newspaper in Argentina, first reported he proposed to girlfriend Maria Belen Chapur — the “soul mate” in the scandal that knocked Sanford off his trajectory as GOP rising star — and she said yes. “I’m both happy and excited for what that means,” Sanford told CNN.
Meanwhile, replacing him in the governor’s mansion and featured at this week’s Republican National Convention is the current South Carolina governor, Nikki Haley, his one-time protégée who moved away from her mentor when she started her own campaign and he was political Kryptonite. The deeply conservative, Indian American Haley was the choice of Jenny Sanford, the ex-governor’s ex-wife, who lost a husband but gained a bestseller. (During one signing I attended for “Staying True,” the wronged wife was treated like a queen.) And Haley is the national cover story, the new face of a Republican Party looking to appeal to women and minorities.
Shakespeare — or Jackie Collins — couldn’t have written it any better.
The report in Clarin painted a picture of a marriage proposal as clumsy as the endless and excruciating press conferences Mark Sanford fumbled through during the scandal that played out over the summer of 2009 when the “luv guv,” a New York tabloid title he shared with his ideological opposite, New York’s scandal-scarred Eliot Spitzer, revealed more than anyone wanted to know about his heart and other regions. According to Clarin, Sanford hid in the bathroom of an eatery in Argentina while a waiter delivered a phony story and the ring in a bag; he then appeared and popped the question.
When last seen, Sanford was serving out his second term as South Carolina governor as though he were serving time. He left with a half-hearted tour around the state, where he was greeted with a mixture of sympathy, pity and scorn.
Any policy he promoted had by that time been lost in the story: Married official skips the country to canoodle in Argentina, leaving the state — as well as his wife and four sons — baffled about his exotic whereabouts.
Sanford’s engagement news brought more jokes, of course. My She the People colleagues wondered what would be listed on the couple’s gift registry: His and her imaginary hiking boots? Monogrammed Kleenex for his next, inevitable crying jag? The original cast recording of “Evita”? Or how about a honeymoon trip so they could finally hike that Appalachian Trail?
Though someone who flamed out so publicly has to expect that, you’ve got to give the guy some credit. As tawdry as the road he took was, Mark Sanford believed in true love. It just took heartbreak, hurt and public embarrassment to get there. A more calculated affair might have been easier to hide than Sanford’s “l’amour fou.”
But are Republicans now obsessed with a 2012 version of “crazy love” affairs, with birthers, with politicians who talk unashamedly about “illegitimate rape” and reducing the black vote with voter ID laws, with deniers of evolution and climate change? Though a tropical storm could temporarily disrupt the GOP coronation of the Mitt Romney-Paul Ryan ticket, other fringe breezes threaten Tampa. Mark Sanford’s political life is over as he starts a new one. In his own goofy way, did he dodge a storm?
Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, has worked at the New York Times and Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3