On Culture

Robin Givhan: Jenny Sanford Gives Wives New Lease, Look on Life After Infidelity

By Robin Givhan
Sunday, July 5, 2009

It is only a detail in an outlandish story of adultery, lies, political death and narcissism that knows no bounds, but there is something splendidly defiant in the wardrobe Jenny Sanford, the wife of Gov. Mark Sanford, has been wearing the past few days. Her husband has spent nearly a fortnight describing his affair with an Argentine woman in the kind of overwrought and salacious terms of a Harlequin bodice-ripper. The wife has responded with calibrated contempt for his behavior, a grudging offer of Christian forgiveness, and the relaxed wardrobe of a regular at Canyon Ranch.

Jenny Sanford has shared her feelings with the media, but she has not overshared in the unsettling manner of her husband, who clearly needed a trusted adviser -- or a fed-up friend -- to tug on his shirt sleeve and tell him to stop explaining, stop babbling, stop behaving like a lovelorn twit. Not because there is a reputation to be salvaged but because he is political roadkill. It's time to cover up the carcass so everyone can just move along.

The husband seems incapable of silence. Yet despite the sloppy verbiage, he has managed to make only one point: I have become unglued. Jenny Sanford, however, has said her piece in a few succinct sentences to the media, and she has thankfully not turned up on either "The View" or "Oprah" to commiserate with an audience hopped up on estrogen and green tea.

She has even denied the public record the usual "aggrieved wife" photograph, one in which she is standing alongside her husband looking gaunt and tired, as if the only thing holding her together were a bit of Chanel lipstick and a strand of Mikimoto pearls. Instead, the indomitable Mrs. Sanford went to the family vacation home. And when she appeared before the cameras she was dressed like she'd just come in from a leisurely bike ride amid the wildflowers, during which she did not perspire. Mrs. Sanford did not look stern or brokenhearted. Mostly, she seemed about as aggravated as if she'd run out of sunscreen.

One photograph has her in white pedal pushers and a blue paisley peasant blouse. In another, she's again wearing white shorts but this time with a coral-colored, flower-print tunic. Another photograph catches her in the kind of loose-fitting paisley tunic one might wear over a swimsuit. She's wearing sunglasses, carrying a large shoulder bag and showing a little thigh. But what's most noticeable is that she's not looking like a constrained -- or strained -- political wife who uses clothes like a suit of armor. Instead, it's just the opposite. She comes across as a woman set free. Everything about her style is breezy.

Those cookie-cutter images of primly dressed political wives whose husbands have "crossed a line" are embarrassing because the wives' desperation is palpable. They're trying to look dignified and controlled in a situation that is utterly devoid of dignity no matter how carefully the husband's mea culpa has been scripted. The wife has the awkward appearance of someone dressed for the wrong occasion. It's as if she primped for Sunday school or got dolled up for a society lunch but has arrived to find herself standing on the edges of a mud pit alongside the lead pig.

Informality is not something that usually comes across in the aftermath of an affair made public. As a carefully constructed facade comes tumbling down, the goal is typically to keep looking as gubernatorial, as presidential, as congressman-like as possible, and that includes having a wife who looks like she could step in and give a fundraising speech at a moment's notice. Jenny Sanford's shorts and tunics underscored what she said to reporters: "His career is not a concern of mine."

Of course, the betrayed wife was on Sullivan's Island, S.C., on vacation. There was no reason for her to get dressed up . . . except for those cameras. In moments of strife, the wives of public-figures-gone-bad have used all sorts of costuming to deal with the uncomfortable spotlight. Most strive to convey order and control by choosing a suit or at least a suit jacket. That's what Silda Spitzer did.

Others gin up sympathy. When Wendy Vitter stood next to her husband, Sen. David Vitter, when he admitted to dabbling with the woman accused of being the D.C. Madam, she did not cut a glossy figure. Wendy Vitter was wearing a brown-and-purple print jersey dress with short sleeves and a V-neckline. The print, tiny winglike shapes, was jarring on television. It wasn't especially flattering on her. She was not wearing any totem of patriotism -- flag pin, eagle brooch -- to suggest that she was standing next to her man out of duty. She looked vaguely nauseated. And Elizabeth Edwards made the interview rounds promoting her my-husband-is-a-cheater book dressed like she had stopped in on her way to a PTA meeting.

Hillary Clinton, exacting an Oscar de la Renta form of revenge, took the glamour route and posed for the cover of Vogue.

But Sanford's approach is rare for a political spouse. It's more in keeping with the routine of the aggrieved Hollywood wife who goes off to a spa and gets herself a 24-hour masseuse and an on-call yogi. Sanford dressed like a woman who did not plan to let the failures of her husband ruin a lovely summer day. Those shorts and the light tunics had an indulgent quality to them. She wasn't dressing to make anyone else feel comfortable. She was dressed for ease. For a day of pleasure. It was not the typical uniform that a scorned political wife wears to keep up appearances. Which is why Sanford, more than all her sisters in ignominy, appears to be just fine.

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