By Philip Rucker and Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 25, 2009
It all started innocently, the South Carolina governor said, when he and a woman struck up a conversation eight years ago. She confided in him about being separated from her husband, and Mark Sanford provided comfort, advising her to get back together for the sake of her two sons, and because marriage is sacred. He asked for her e-mail address and they kept in touch, he from the United States and she from Argentina.
Then, about a year ago, came "that whole sparking thing," he said yesterday afternoon at a news conference. The relationship turned romantic and went into "serious overdrive." The couple rendezvoused twice, both times secretly. But the third meeting would not be so discreet.
Sanford (R) disappeared from his state for nearly a week, including Father's Day, infuriating lawmakers in Columbia and leaving behind befuddled staff members who said they thought their boss was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. But he actually had left the governor's mansion in a state-issued SUV and jetted to Buenos Aires, where he spent five days with the woman.
Sanford, 49, a Bible-quoting social conservative and rising star in the Republican Party who harbors presidential ambitions, returned home yesterday after being spotted at the Atlanta airport to face a national television audience for 20 minutes. He offered a rambling and at times tearful apology for his extramarital affair.
"The bottom line is this," he said: "I have been unfaithful to my wife."
After ruminating about the affair with stark frankness, the visibly shaken governor solved a captivating mystery about his whereabouts, cemented his reputation as one of the nation's most eccentric political figures and became the latest prominent politician whose aspirations may have been undone by infidelity.
As Sanford digressed about his boyhood adventures on the Appalachian Trail and airplane trips around the world with just $100 in emergency money, about "God's law" and moral absolutes, people standing behind him in the Capitol Rotunda could be seen smirking. The governor is known for sometimes quirky behavior.
During his six years in Congress, Sanford turned down his housing allowance and slept on a cot in his Capitol Hill office. A frugal governor, he requires his staff to use both sides of a Post-it note and rose to national prominence this year by rejecting federal stimulus funding for his state, drawing the ire of lawmakers there. He even once lampooned "pork" spending in the budget by carrying two pigs onto the floor of the state House chamber. (The pigs, apparently, were not housebroken and made a mess of Sanford's suit and the carpet.)
But yesterday, Sanford stood out for a surprising confession. He said he told his wife, Jenny, of the affair about five months ago. They are effectively separated, with she and their four sons living apart from him at the family house on prestigious Sullivan's Island near Charleston. The Sanfords recently put the property up for sale, reportedly for $3.5 million, his spokesman said, because they wanted to build a "dream home" at the family's plantation in South Carolina's Low Country.
Jenny Sanford, 46, a former Wall Street executive whose grandfather founded a power-saw manufacturing company, did not appear at the news conference and issued a statement saying that she and her husband had agreed to a "trial separation" with the goal of "ultimately strengthening our marriage."
"We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong," she said. "I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago. During this short separation it was agreed that Mark would not contact us."
Sanford resigned yesterday as head of the Republican Governors Association, but did not say whether he would step down as governor before his second four-year term ends in 18 months.
Over the past year, he said, his relationship with the woman in Argentina "developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. . . . And all I can say is that I apologize."
Late yesterday, the State, a South Carolina newspaper, published e-mails between Sanford's personal account and the woman it identified as "Maria" in Buenos Aires. The newspaper said it obtained the messages in December, but did not explain why it waited to publish them.
Last July 10, Sanford wrote: "You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that is so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself . . . in the faded glow of the night's light -- but hey, that would be going into sexual details."
The day before, Maria wrote Sanford: "You are my love . . . something hard to believe even for myself as it's also a kind of impossible love, not only because of distance but situation."
Sanford's office declined to comment on the e-mails. The governor avoided questions yesterday relating to the status of his marriage. He said he will seek reconciliation, which he called "a continual process, all through life, of getting one's heart right in life."
Sanford referred obliquely to receiving spiritual guidance from a Christian bible study group in Washington that he identified only as "C Street." The group holds private weekly prayer and counseling meetings at a Capitol Hill home shared by several members of Congress.
In Columbia, yesterday's news conference was stunning.
"It was the most bizarre happening in this state since World War II," said Jack Bass, a political scientist at the College of Charleston. "The question of his resignation is likely to come up."
The tall, tanned and rail-thin Sanford usually wears khakis and loafers and is a man of ritual. Commentators talk about his "surfer dude" accent, and indeed he is a windsurfer. When running for governor, he often insisted on eating at Taco Bell or Steak 'n' Shake, a Southern fast-food chain. He apologized about "the extravagance" of campaign events, even when they were far from that.
Sanford is the son of a prominent heart surgeon who moved his family from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to a South Carolina plantation when Sanford was in high school. He and his siblings slept in the same bedroom with his parents because his father wanted to save money by running only one air conditioner.
In Congress from 1995 to 2001, Sanford was a maverick. In 2000, he cast the lone "nay" vote more times than any other member of the House except Rep. Ron Paul (R-Tex.). During seven years as governor, Sanford frequently sparred with leaders of both political parties. He delighted in using his line-item veto powers to slash measures passed by the state legislature, but lawmakers -- not taking kindly to that habit -- frequently overrode him.
The legislature and the state's Supreme Court overrode Sanford's attempts to block the state from accepting stimulus funding.
"Politically, he is very strong-willed and doesn't like to negotiate differences when you have differences on a bill," said state House Speaker Robert W. Harrell Jr. (R).
State Sen. John C. Land III (D), South Carolina's longest-serving lawmaker, said Sanford "is done politically," because in the past he has been "holier than thou." Sanford called on President Bill Clinton to resign over his affair with White House intern Monica S. Lewinsky.
State politicians are already distancing themselves from Sanford, including Rep. Nikki Haley (R), the candidate widely seen as his handpicked successor. Yesterday something disappeared from her Web site: the governor's picture.
Staff writers Alec MacGillis, Ben Pershing, Paul Kane, Chris Cillizza and Ed O'Keefe, polling director Jon Cohen and staff researchers Alice Crites and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.