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Ruth Marcus on Jenny Sanford and the Role of the Political Wife

Jenny Sanford, wife of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who admitted to having an affair.
Jenny Sanford, wife of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, who admitted to having an affair. (By Alice Keeney -- Associated Press)
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Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, July 1, 2009; 2:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus discussed her column about the reaction of Jenny Sanford to the admission by her husband, S.C. Gov. Mark Sanford, that he committed adultery.

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Ruth Marcus: Hi everyone. Haven't chatted for a while so glad to be back...talking about tax reform....Just kidding. Somehow I thought the Jenny Sanford column would generate some interest...

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Anonymous: If Sanford is TRYING to fall in love with his wife again, it would seem to me she would be wise to divorce him. Jennie is a very intelligent woman and would be much better off without him. She is worthy of a much better husband.

Ruth Marcus: With you on that one. If my husband said that about me, I'd be outta there.

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Blue Ridge Mountains, VA: My impression is that Jenny Sanford has (at least figuratively) thrown up her hands, and decided that her four sons and her own well-being are her main concerns right now, as opposed to either her husband in general and her well-being in particular. How does this fit with your impression of her?

Ruth Marcus: Well, it was pretty telling that she said his career was no concern of hers; she's been pretty ... I was going to say intimately but that's probably a poor word choice ... deeply involved in it. Seems to me kids in this situation have to be what comes first.

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Washington, D.C.: I'm pretty sure that's what you call a true Southern Woman - a steel magnolia.

Ruth Marcus: Should have thought of that phrase yesterday.

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Chicago: I am quickly coming to despise Mark Sanford. Assuming he hasn't developed a new mental disorder, he seems utterly incapable of comprehending that the world doesn't revolve around him. He is so recklessly self-absorbed it's scary.

That having been said, why is Jenny Sanford married to this guy in the first place? She's an independently wealthy investment banker from the Chicago suburbs. (Shades of Hillary marrying Bill, anyone?) She didn't need this and obviously doesn't want it now. So how did she get there? Thanks.

Ruth Marcus: Interesting question.

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Indianapolis: Will someone please advise Mr. Sanford to please just shut up? He's making everything worse with his fawning on and on over his "tragic love affair." Puhleeeze! Has he never heard the term midlife crisis? Silent and brokenhearted I could endure, but this ongoing saga is embarrassing, to his family, to his constituents, and should be to him.

Ruth Marcus: It's excruciating but compelling to watch. I agree he should stop, but if he won't I'm going to keep reading everything he says. Btw, I have a new post up about yesterday's comments, http://voices.washingtonpost.com/postpartisan/2009/07/sanfords_confession_tour_catch.html

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Los Angeles: Maureen Dowd had an article today that was less positive about Jenny Sanford. How would you respond to Dowd's criticisms about how Jenny Sanford has responded to this situation?

washingtonpost.com: Rules of the Wronged

Ruth Marcus: I thought it was an interesting take, definitely made me stop and think when I read it this morning. I can see the argument for the sake of the kids for keeping them and her out of the public eye as much as possible. But I still love the not-going-gently or acting humiliated part of Jenny Sanford's response.

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Arlington, Va.: Isn't Jenny Sanford also at fault? If Mark was kept satisfied and happy at home, it's unlikely he would have cheated. Men cheat because they seek something that is missing from their marriage.

Ruth Marcus: Oh please. Blame the victim.

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Stewartstown, Pa.: Why does it matter if politicians have affairs or not? Someone married to a famous, powerful person should not be surprised that their spouse is unfaithful.

Ruth Marcus: Well, for one thing, if politicians criticize other politicians for having affairs and then do so themselves, that is per se newsworthy. As to assuming the risk of marrying a politician, well, apparently it's a big one (risk, that is.) But apparently only if the famous powerful person is a male.

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Rockville, Md.: I keep seeing comments about how it shouldn't matter if a politician fools around, just how he does his job. What if a female governor had done the EXACT thing he did? I'm pretty sure she would've been pushed much harder to resign and all this gooey talk about being in love would be off the table!

Ruth Marcus: Really interesting to think about which way the gooey love talk would cut in the case of a female politician. Would she be more likely to be excused if she said she were deeply in love with a soul mate, a la Sanford, or more likely to be excused if she said her powerful sexual urges got the better of her. I think we as a society cope much better with the former, coming from a woman.

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Annapolis, Md.: COMMENT: It seems that until now, the political wives "careers" were wrapped up in their husbands success, despite the degrees and personal success (i.e. Edwards and Clinton). It isn't about "smarts" but about personal self-worth - do I posses or is it embedded in "my man". I just hope future spouses will take a page out of her rule book.

QUESTION: Do you think her response was directly related to the fact that unlike these other "situations" this man seems to be in love with his mistress?

Ruth Marcus: Well, in most other situations the politician is expressing remorse, not longing for his soulmate, so, yes, probably it is related.

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Denver: I agree with your article. This woman seems to be a class act. But, I'm saddened by the way he seems to disrespect her, not only with the infidelity, but with so many of his actions. At various points he almost seems to imply that this Argentinean woman "has a deeper capacity to love" than does his wife.

Obviously as outsiders it's hard to know, but his wife seems to be to demonstrate enormous love for him and for her children by the way that she is rising above, putting others first and seeking the higher ground. I think being a parent is the most fundamental and most critical leadership position most of us will ever have.

Mr. Sanford is another kind of leader, but what he is demonstrating as a parent at the moment is a lack of ability to put anything or anyone above his emotions (being in love with this woman). I don't know if how one performs in one kind of leadership role is a reflection on how one behaves in others, probably not, but I can see why people are uneasy with him as a Governor on that off chance.

Ruth Marcus: I'm just glad he doesn't have any nuclear weapons at his disposal.

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Milwaukee: To the reader from Arlington

Some men are NEVER going to be satisfied. That's their problem, not their spouses.

Ruth Marcus: noted.

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Annandale, Va.: Had Mrs. Sanford stood beside her cheatin' man at press conferences, would he have indiscreetly mooned over Maria? Can we not conceive of a woman standing beside her guy from a position of strength?

Ruth Marcus: It's her fault he went all moony? I was reluctant to criticize Eliot Spitzer's wife for standing by him, to take just one example; I guess i can conceive of a woman standing beside the man from a position of saying, look, this is between the two of us, it doesn't affect his ability to be a public servant, etc. But it is still incredibly distasteful to watch. I liked the Ensign model better.

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New York : Its interesting to me that Spitzer was railroaded out of town within a week, while this guy is hanging around like he's auditioning to co-host Oprah. And Spitzer never illegally used state money for his habits like this guy did. Why the double standard?

Ruth Marcus: Um, Spizer committed a crime (a crime he had railed against as state attorney general) by paying someone money to have sex with him. This was good old-fashioned vanilla adultery by comparison. The state money seems pretty trivial to me, especially in comparison to the other situation.

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Chapin, S.C.: I like your article a lot; it hits at the truth. The one thing I would caution, however, is that many of the things Jenny Sanford is--as you write about, it surely is easier to be them while your net worth is upwards of $100 million. She can be "strong" while knowing she doesn't have to depend on this philanderer to put clothes on her children. I am a male and am embarrassed by his "...meandering mooning of a love-struck adolescent inhabiting the body of a supposedly grown-up politician." Now that's a great and accurate picture of the guy if ever was one.

So while I am a fan of your column and recognize the elegance in which Jenny Sanford has dealt with this, let us not forget that many jilted women--and men--don't have the bank account she does to weather the storm. And believe me from a guy how has done without money and with money, it's a whole helluva lot easier to weather most of life's storms WITH money.

That being said Mark Sanford has always been a phony. It's just taken until now to catch up with him. And he too has always been able to use his money both ways. It's VERY easy to be frugal when you HAVE money. He always used this--eating PB&J sandwiches on the campaign trail, using both sides of Post It notes. But that was a facade. Try being frugal when you are POOR. Frugality is chic when your spouse is worth $100 million.

I am only sad it took Jenny Sanford this long to find him out. Gov. Mark has had these stripes for a long long time folks. He is as shrewd a politician as you ever want to meet--sorta like a Baptist minister crossed with a Wall Street or Madison Avenue psyche. He is a PR machine, an artful master of illusion. He is a smooth talker on the Christian front.

He thoroughly embarrassed Jenny Sanford and himself and his sons and the state. But "King David's" apology wasn't 24 hours old and he is back to his artful mastery again. See "The King" says Mark "fell mightily and rebuilt." Sanford doesn't even know he ain't close to being a King--figuratively or literally. Jenny Sanford? She will do very well thank you, thanks to a fat bank account.

Ruth Marcus: Money helps.

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Philadelphia: Look, I've admired Jenny Sanford's handling of this situation since the governor first disappeared. But can't we do that and sympathize with the man a little bit too? It's pretty dismissive to say that he's behaving as an adolescent. Seems like he's reached a point where he realized that he too admires his wife, but doesn't love her -- did he ever? People make mistakes like this all the time -- marrying someone who checks a lot of boxes (good character? check; potential good mother? check; socio/economic match? check) yet he's truly caught, with his religious convictions and paternal responsibilities (not to mention career opportunities) pulling one way and his heart pulling another. If it weren't for the boys, I'd say he should buy a one way ticket to Argentina. But because of his children, he can't, so there's a certain sadness in that he'll need to learn to be happy by doing the right thing -- rather than being innately happy by being with a partner he truly loves.

Ruth Marcus: First of all, he should stop talking about it. Second, and this may demonstrate a failure of romanticism on my part, grow up. He's got family responsibilities, even part from gubernatorial ones. This kind of head-over-heels stuff is for teenagers.

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Men cheat because they seek something that is missing from their marriage.: I'm throwing a virtual shoe at this guy's head.

Ruth Marcus: Size ten! Me too!

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Arlington, Va.: You state that Jenny isn't a victim. While I agree she seems to be handling a difficult situation with grace and class, nothing she can do can change the fact that she is, indeed, a victim of this very sad situation. Do you know what her beliefs regarding divorce are?

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure about divorce but she seems from her statement to believe very strongly in the importance of putting the marital commitment paramount. She's a victim in the sense that you say, but she's not acting like one.

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Men cheat because they seek something that is missing from their marriage.: That's a big steaming pile of dog poop. Men like to use that excuse to justify poor behavior. No one's buying it anymore.

Ruth Marcus: Another shoe.

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To Arlington, Va.: Thanks for the nostalgic Archie Bunker analysis... My first hearty chuckle of the day.

Ruth Marcus: I don't think Archie ever cheated.

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Accokeek, Md.: I would like to ask "does Mrs. Sanford feel her husband should resign from office or should he continue to lead his state?"

Ruth Marcus: Good question. She did talk in her statement about what a great job he had done for the state.

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Albany, N.Y.: While my state is still ahead in the adulterous governors race (two out of the last two), I'd be interested in your take on why Sanford can't seem to shut up, when every rule of PR would tell him to make this a one day story and the be quiet -- Is he afraid of some reporter finding out something he hasn't confessed to yet, or is he just narcissistic?

Ruth Marcus: IF this is a thought-out strategy, it's the weirdest (and dumbest) one I've ever seen, so I'd go with the armchair psychology.

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Upper Marlboro, Md.: I agreed with most of your article, however I take issue with you lumping Elizabeth Edwards and Hilary Clinton together. I just don't get Edwards as an "enabler." A lot in the media excoriated her for expressing that she just doesn't care about whether or not the baby of the Hunter woman was her husband's or not, but can you really blame her? She has terminal cancer, why should she spend her last precious days worrying about this other woman's child? I think we expect 'public' figures to always do the noble thing, but I totally sympathize with her and think a lot of us would probably react the same way if we were in her shoes. Your thoughts?

Ruth Marcus: Elizabeth Edwards has dealt with and is dealing with more tragedy than the rest of us are likely to experience, and I try to keep that in mind in writing about her. But this doesn't have to do with the baby--or "it," as Elizabeth refers to the baby--but with her passionate vouching for her husband (and as a better candidate for women than HRC!) even when she knew what he had done.

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Washington, D.C.: Jenny from the block!! The article infers that Jenny was the intellectually stronger partner in the marriage. Was she the reason that Mark Sanford got elected in the first place?

Ruth Marcus: Don't know. She is definitely smart, and talks in one (pre-affair) interview about researching tax and education policies for him. But there is also an odd story about how he shows up in the hospital room after she's given birth to their second child and announces that he's running for congress.

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Orlando, FL: Did she say he asked permission to see his mistress? Hello... What kind of marriage is this? Is this husband and wife or mother and child? Was he being open and honest or is there something else going on here?

Ruth Marcus: pretty weird, I agree.

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Omaha, Neb.: Mark Sanford's behavior is truly bizarre. How does he compare with other outed, cheatin' politicians who have stayed with the other woman? (I'm thinking of Gingrich, but there must be others.) And I LOVED your column on Jenny Sanford, it was an excellent point and thoughtfully made.

Ruth Marcus: I can't recall another cheatn' politician who gushed more than he apologized.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think that Jennifer Sanford will get a book deal out of this? She definitely deserves one--and I'll bet many women would love to hear tack on relationships, given her response to her husband's behavior.

Ruth Marcus: If not a talk show....I sure hope not. Then it would be just another person capitalizing on trauma and misfortune. Pretty sordid.

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Columbia, S.C.: I think Jenny may be Mark's father in female form. Mark wrote earlier this year, or possibly late last about how his father made the family believe if they didn't get that last bale of hay in before the storm, the farm would fail and they'd all go hungry, despite the fact the family was quite wealthy. Jenny seems made of the same stuff.

The comment in one of the emails about how Jenny derided his mother for being a nobody despite being a very nice, kind person was telling in this respect, no? Not to blame her -- he surely knew what he was marrying -- just now he's having second thoughts and very confused.

Ruth Marcus: Interesting. I'm stil working on the told his staff to use both sides of the PostIt note thing.

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McLean, Va.: Clearly the notion that a wife could in anyway be culpable in a loveless marriage has been deemed taboo; I think this is far too simplistic.

Ruth Marcus: That's not what Arlington said. He (I assume) implied it was always the wife's fault; men don't stray unless... Of course there can be culpability on both sides.

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Washington, D.C.: I feel as if Sanford views his confessions to the media as his penitence and if he just keeps talking, all will be forgiven. It's as if this all he needs to do to correct things.

Ruth Marcus: Maybe he feels as if he stops talking everyone will stop paying attention and his career will be (as it is) over.

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Was she the reason that Mark Sanford got elected in the first place?: Actually another article about her, sorry I don't remember which one, stated exactly that. That she ran his campaign and was the reason he won.

Ruth Marcus: She definitely ran his campaign.

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Woodbridge: Does anyone really see this marriage going anywhere, since he has made it publicly clear that the Argentinian is his "soul mate"? I would not want him around if our relationship was that much of a weight around his neck.

Ruth Marcus: Agreed. Soul mate would have ended it for me.

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Pickerington, Ohio: One thing you haven't mentioned is that Jenny Sanford is leaning hard on her Christian faith, and in fact her behavior and statements are very consistent with that faith - hating divorce, forgiving, etc. I don't know if the numbers other chatters have used for her net worth are accurate, but she could easily have used the governor's indiscretion as her ticket out of the marriage, and she is emphatically not doing that.

Ruth Marcus: Yes, if you read her statement, there is a lot of emphasis on faith, and one of my emailers told me today that love as an act of will, which she talks about, is a notion from Thomas Aquinas.

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Pittsburgh: Do we have any sense of what Gov. Sanford has said to his sons regarding any of this? That's four more males who do not need to learn from their father's example of how to put the indiscreet back in indiscretion.

Ruth Marcus: Boy, I hope he doesn't tell us what he said to his sons. on the other hand, he's told us practically everything else.

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Houston: "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."

You don't really mean a model for all spouses, do you? Just wives. With the way child custody is weighted against fathers, men don't have the option to use access to children as leverage the way mothers do.

Ruth Marcus: I meant the toughness.

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Lansdale, Pa.: Here is my take on the whole Sanford mess: He wants out of the marriage, but does not have the intestinal fortitude to ask for a divorce. Instead, he is making things so bad that his wife will be the one who will file for the divorce. Then he comes out and says that he wanted to repair his marriage but his wife didn't give him a chance. "Poor me!" And poor Jenny Sanford is in a no-win situation.

Ruth Marcus: To be nice to Mark Sanford just for a bit, or more accurately to feel some charity and compassion toward him, clearly the guy is a total mess, completely falling apart, future down the drain, and torn between his desire and his sense of duty.

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New York: What does it say about the human species that we've had hundreds of these Sanford/Vitter/Spitzer/Hart episodes, but no comparable scandal on the part of a female politician. Can you think of one? The closest thing I can think of was A.G. Cuomo in NY, whose wife, a Kennedy, very publicly cheated on him before they divorced. Does this simply indicate that the type of male who seeks higher office unavoidably also has the type of personality which puts his own interests over those of everyone else, but that women who seek political power have different motivations?

Ruth Marcus: Henry Kissinger said power was the ultimate aphrodisiac, but that may work better when the man is wielding the power; I'm not sure that female politicians have the same effect on men. Or the same desire, as you point out, to have that effect. I think there is something in the male political personality that craves the adulation from fans, on the campaign trail or elsewhere, in addition to the egotism that you mention.

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Arlington, VA: Don't you think it makes a difference that Jenny Sanford had at least 5 months to process the situation before it became a public spectacle? Some of the other political wives seemed to be learning of the affairs at the same time we were.

Ruth Marcus: Yes. Good point.

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Myrtle Beach, SC: Re the "Steel Magnolia" comment - Ms. Sanford's not Southern. She's from Illinois.

Ruth Marcus: noted--and someone else made this point too.

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Alexandria, Va.: Whereas I feel sad for Mrs. Sanford, I don't see her as a role model. Using your children to get your straying husband to "toe the line" and telling your husband not to call "us" during the separation deliberately pulls the children into a power play -- and this is not right. And not right when you claim you are looking out for the children. I also do not agree that love is a decision, or a fundamentalist view of the Bible.

Apparently Gov. Sanford is swept away by love for another woman. A dignified woman in this situation (and I have been in it myself) does not use her kids to make a package deal (return to "us" or forfeit your kids, you cheating scum), but reassures the kids that their dad loves THEM, just not her.

I agree that Mrs. Sanford is a breath of fresh air for refusing to stand by her man, however I do not agree with her Biblical view of marriage and neither do most women in the U.S. Just because we feel sorry for her does not make her a hero or a role model.

Ruth Marcus: Ok, the toe the line comment was a bit chilling.

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Re: Arlington: There's a difference between culpability for a loveless marriage and culpability for cheating. While Jenny Sanford might (and probably is) equally culpable for their allegedly loveless marriage, that doesn't give her any culpability in her husband's act of cheating. Hello, personal responsibility!? It's not automatic that loveless marriage = cheating, there are other responses to it, like for instance divorce, fidelity despite lovelessness, working out a consentual "arrangement" (though Jenny Sanford appears to have rejected this last option).

Ruth Marcus: Take that, Arlington! This is more eloquent than I was able to put it.

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Vienna, VA: Might Mrs. Sanford be considering a political career of her own?

Ruth Marcus: Interesting thought. High name recognition, anyway.

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Washington, D.C.: When Jenny Sanford said "His career is no concern of mine." I thought "Right on, Jenny!!" She's not sitting around waiting for him. How refreshing!!

Ruth Marcus: Yes, and given her involvement in his career, pretty tough.

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DC: Ah, yes. That good old "forgiveness" standby. If I were in the cheated-on-wife situation (which, thankfully, I am not), the absolutely first thing I would do would be to hightail it down to my physician's office to get AIDS-tested. Then I would get all the children AIDS-tested, as I wouldn't really have a clue when errant hubby first went errant.

And, yet, somehow, I don't think Jennifer Sanford will do that -- possibly because, for all her other apparent smarts, it wouldn't occur to her.

Ruth Marcus: not sure why you would make that assumption.

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Alexandria, Va.: Everyone is saying they should stay together "for the kids," but doesn't it defeat the purpose if their parents clearly don't like each other? The damage has been done. It's not doing any of them any favors for them to stay together. I would want my mom to move on.

Ruth Marcus: You know, most kids, I think, would be perfectly happy to have their parents unhappy but together. I agree that divorce is sometimes necessary, but let's not delude ourselves into thinking that it's good for kids, or in many circumstances better for them than unhappy parents.

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Ruth Marcus: Well, that was fun...And no tax questions! or health care!

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