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Hiking the high road

As 'a new kind of woman' dealing with the governor's adultery, Jenny Sanford seeks divorce while seizing control of her image

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 12, 2009

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

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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 http://JennySanford.com -- 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."

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