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Jenny Sanford, Role Model

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Finally, a new model for the wronged political spouse.

It's about time.

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's let-it-all-hang-out news conference was a different approach, too. But a better one? Pick your poison: staged declaration of politically requisite contrition, or meandering mooning of a love-struck adolescent inhabiting the body of a supposedly grown-up politician.

The stomach churns at both -- and from the spousal perspective, I suppose I'd rather have my straying husband (I mean, my theoretically straying husband) driven by a different piece of his anatomy than his heart.

But Jenny Sanford presents a new and improved version of the betrayed political spouse -- neither enabler nor victim.

We're all too familiar with the usual drill, in all its excruciating permutations. In one, the wronged wife stands, looking stricken, by the side of the cheating pol as cameras whir. See Silda Wall and Eliot Spitzer, Suzanne and Larry Craig.

In another, the wife is not on display but issues a supportive, if unnervingly euphemistic, press release. See Darlene Ensign: "Since we found out last year we have worked through the situation" and "our marriage has become stronger." Since we found out? Seems to me that one of us knew earlier about that, um, situation.

And space does not permit me to plumb the depths of spouse-enabling, self-deception and ambition embedded in the examples of Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Edwards, except to say that the latest about John Edwards makes Bill Clinton look like the perfect gentleman. A former Edwards aide, Andrew Young, is reported to be writing a book describing how the one-time presidential candidate beseeched him to falsely claim paternity of Rielle Hunter's child and how Young found a videotape showing Edwards, as the New York Daily News so delicately put it, "taking positions that weren't on his official platform."

I have to confess to, and apologize for, having preconceived notions about Jenny Sanford that turned out to have nothing to do with who she actually is. I heard "wife of conservative Christian governor," saw the picture of her with those four well-groomed boys and figured her for someone who wouldn't have the spine to stick up for herself.

Boy, was I wrong. She is as smart as Elizabeth or Hillary -- trade the law degree for an investment banking vice presidency (Lazard Freres) -- and may be tougher, too, at least when it comes to husbands.

What I admire most about Sanford's response is that she has apparently concluded -- correctly so -- that the person who is humiliated by her husband's affair is, in fact, her husband, not her. And so she is not standing by his side, but she is not hiding in a hole, either.

Instead, she took the kids out to see the tall ships -- and breezily told the press mob, "I wish we had room on the boat for you all, but we do not." He rambled on in a news conference; she crafted an elegant and thoughtful statement.

I admire her mature view of adultery as not a one-strike (or even three trips to Argentina) and-you're-out transgression and her refusal to tolerate its continuation. "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," Sanford said in her statement. "I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago."

I admire, too, her practical vision of real love and what it takes to make a marriage work. "It wasn't exactly love at first sight," Sanford recalled about meeting her future husband at a beach party in the Hamptons. "It was more like friendship at first sight."

Now she still has her feet on the ground even as her husband is head over heels -- with another woman. "I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will, and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal," Jenny Sanford said in her statement.

And I admire her investment-banker steel. "He was told in no uncertain terms not to see her," she said in an interview with the Associated Press last week about her husband's pleas for permission to visit his mistress. And, on his decision to defy her: "You would think that a father who didn't have contact with his children, if he wanted those children, he would toe the line a little bit."

Wow. Maybe this is a new role model for all wronged spouses, not just political ones.

marcusr@washpost.com

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