Jenny Sanford, hiking the high road
As 'a new kind of woman' dealing with the governor's adultery, S.C. first lady seeks divorce while seizing control of her image

By Philip Rucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

In the end, there were differences she could not reconcile.

This past summer, as her no-boundaries husband divulged salacious details of his trysts with an Argentine woman he considered his "soul mate," Jenny Sanford made sure she had something to say, too. Starting with his first oversharing afternoon, the first lady of South Carolina issued carefully worded yet stinging statements berating Gov. Mark Sanford's behavior. She didn't so much as lift a finger to salvage his floundering political career. She did, however, pledge again and again to repair their marriage.

So this week, even as the Palmetto State's two-term Republican governor survived an impeachment battle, Jenny Sanford told ABC's Barbara Walters she had forgiven him but would never forget. And Friday, the governor's wife filed for a divorce on the grounds of adultery.

"I am now filing for divorce," the first lady announced in a statement, as the complaint titled "Jennifer S. Sanford vs. Marshall C. Sanford, Jr." became public. "This came after many unsuccessful efforts at reconciliation, yet I am still dedicated to keeping the process that lies ahead peaceful for our family."

It was a fitting capstone to a political saga of sex and lies that has intrigued the country for six months. But it wasn't the presidential hopeful-turned-political roadkill that people found so compelling. It wasn't the Appalachian Trail fable or the secretive red-eye from Buenos Aires or the rambling news conference in the marble-floored corridor of the State Capitol. It was Jenny.

Looking back, in the many acts of the Sanford drama, Jenny Sanford seized the role of stage manager. A Wall Street executive transplanted to the Low Country, she didn't stand at her husband's side when he tearfully confessed his sins. She didn't defend him when state lawmakers called on him to resign and later began impeachment proceedings. His career, she said, was not her concern.

Yet there she was, firing zingers to the Associated Press from the living room of the beach house where she had sought refuge with the couple's four boys. There she was, talking assuredly about the religious sanctity of marriage, the patience of Job and the grace of God.

There she was, carrying baskets of belongings out of the Governor's Mansion, posing in a thigh-revealing summer frock for a Vogue shoot, inking a book deal to publish her memoirs, trademarking her name and launching -- and topping off the tumult as one of Walters's "10 Most Fascinating People of 2009."

Sanford's reaction to her husband's infidelity purposefully did not follow the post-disclosure postures of Hillary Clinton, Silda Spitzer or Elizabeth Edwards. She emerged as a standard-bearer in the year when CBS debuted "The Good Wife," a prime-time drama about a cheating politician's spouse who rebounds professionally, rising after his downfall. Sanford blazed a path for an aggrieved spouse of a philandering politician and made herself an unlikely heroine -- a role model, albeit in unwelcome circumstances.

"She was a new kind of woman and, as it turns out, she struck a chord," Walters said in an interview. "We have had a year of wives standing tight-lipped and unhappy next to their husbands. . . . A lot of women related to her, and she behaved in a very different way. She wasn't a victim. She was independent and true to herself."

* * *

Jenny Sanford filed for divorce Friday in Charleston County Family Court, stating in her complaint that since their 1989 wedding in Florida, Mark Sanford "engaged in a sexual relationship" with another woman and that she therefore is "entitled to a divorce." Hours after his wife issued a statement announcing she was dissolving their marriage, Mark Sanford released a statement saying his wife has been "more than gracious these last six months and gone above and beyond in her patience and commitment."

"While it is not the course I would have hoped for, or would choose, I want to take full responsibility for the moral failure that led us to this tragic point," the governor said. ". . . While our family structure may change, I know that we will both work earnestly to be the best mom and dad we can be to four of the finest boys on earth."

Friends of the couple said Jenny Sanford has been deliberate and careful about how she has comported herself in the months since her husband admitted his affair, well aware that her every statement and appearance would be scrutinized. She has strived to appear anything but betrayed.

"Can you imagine being in the public eye and having all this happen to you? I think I might just dig a hole and live there," said Marjory Wentworth, South Carolina's poet laureate and Jenny's close friend.

Instead, Sanford moved two hours from the state capital of Columbia to the family's beachfront home on Sullivan's Island. She enrolled their four sons in school in the Charleston area and, friends said, tried to build a cocoon of normalcy around her brood. Together with Mark Sanford, they went on a family vacation to Europe.

"I think the way Jenny has gone about comporting herself is in accordance with who I think she is as a person," said Tom Davis, a state senator and longtime friend of the couple. "She's a very sincere, honest, intelligent person who is passionately committed to her family."

All the while, nothing was normal.

Wentworth said she and Jenny Sanford, who had tried counseling, were walking in downtown Charleston recently when someone came up and poked Sanford, telling her, "I just wanted to see if it was you."

The encounter did not faze Sanford.

"The way she's carried herself through all of this is grace under fire," Wentworth said. "Her public role has changed so dramatically so quickly, and I think she understands it and accepts it. She's very aware of it and careful about it, and she knows that every move she makes will be monitored so closely."

Sanford is making the most of her turn under the spotlight. She is finishing a memoir, "Staying True," to be published in April by Ballantine Books. Friends said her book will delve not only into her heartbreak, but also address themes of self-reliance, forgiveness, reconciliation and self-respect.

Sanford also reportedly has applied to trademark her name to possibly sell clothing, mugs and other household items, and she has set up a personal Web site featuring news releases and photographs. She also has endorsed a Republican gubernatorial candidate -- state Rep. Nikki Haley, the only woman in the 2010 race -- to succeed her husband.

"I don't think it would be fair to say that she's out there seeking publicity," said Joel Sawyer, Mark Sanford's former communications director. "There are people very interested in what she has to say, and she's telling her story."

Jenny Sanford, born Jennifer Sullivan, is from a wealthy Irish Catholic family in suburban Chicago and graduated magna cum laude from Georgetown University. As a vice president at Lazard Freres, she handled mergers and acquisitions on Wall Street. She met Mark Sanford at a party in the Hamptons, and he persuaded her to give up her career and move with him down South, where he would launch a political career.

* * *

Jenny Sanford's recent moves have fueled speculation that she might run for office someday. After all, this is the same Jenny Sanford who managed her husband's campaign for Congress from the basement of their beach house, baking oatmeal-chocolate chip cookies for reporters, and folding laundry and cooking dinner while on the telephone debating what the next television advertisement would say.

During Mark Sanford's first term as governor, Jenny Sanford was usually in the governor's office calling the shots as his top political adviser while the kids were at school.

But Jenny Sanford has insisted repeatedly she does not want to be a politician.

"That'll never happen," she told Walters in the ABC interview, which aired Wednesday night.

"Why?" Walters asked.

" 'Cause I have no interest," Sanford replied. "I never have."

Even if she is never a candidate, Sanford might still wade into the political debate, said Jon Lerner, a political consultant who worked on both of her husband's campaigns for governor. Lerner, who remains close personally to both Mark and Jenny Sanford, has been advising her on her public statements.

"She is someone who cares a great deal about public policy and has a lot of strong views about public policy matters," Lerner said. "She is very much in sync with where her husband was on policy grounds, and I suspect that from time to time she probably will speak out about public policy matters that she cares about and probably support candidates who share those views."

For Mark Sanford, this whole saga might have been forgotten if his wife had stood dutifully, silently at his side. But his political concerns have decidedly not dictated how she behaves, said Danielle Vinson, political science department chairman at Furman University.

"Her talking about it, her being willing to do the interview with Vogue, her doing the interview with Barbara Walters -- all of those things keep it in the spotlight, especially at a time when he's trying to fend off impeachment from the state legislature," Vinson said. "She hasn't been thinking or worrying too much about his political future, and she's said as much."

So what, then, is her next step?

"She's a very intelligent and capable person, and she has . . . mapped out a future," said Robert Oldendick, director of the Institute for Public Service and Policy Research at the University of South Carolina.

A TV show? A clothing line? "I don't know what the ultimate next step is," Oldendick said. "But I think that the well-thought-out part of this is that she needs to establish an image of competence and independence. Her reaction has been . . . 'This was wrong, and I'm going to show that I can withstand this on my own.' "

Research director Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company