Mark Sanford

The Sordid Sanford Saga and Short American Memories

The Mark Sanford story is equal parts fascinating and headache. Rising from the political ashes, the former governor won the Republican run-off for the House of Representatives nomination, pitting him against Democrat Elizabeth Colbert Busch in the May 7th election for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. He celebrated his victory last night with his fiance, producing this tender moment:

Mark Sanford and Maria Chapur

From the Twitterati

It sounds like a Cinderella story, doesn’t it? If this is all you know of the tale, and you have no interest in scratching your head in confusion, you should stop reading now. Because this is not the whole story.

Does the name Mark Sanford sound familiar? Perhaps that’s because, in 2009, he was on a trajectory straight to the top. It was less than a year since Obama had taken office, but 2012 Presidential aspirations were already being discussed, along with his odds – which weren’t all that bad. Sanford seemed to embody the compassionate Evangelism that had served Bush so well, without the political baggage. As Chairman of the Republican Governors Association, he initially rejected stimulus funds for his state on principle, prompting articles like the one in Forbes, which proclaimed,”Small-government conservatives have found their champion.”

He’d eventually accept funds for his state, and went on to defend President Obama on occasion, saying “Anyone who wants Obama to fail is an idiot.” His deft political maneuvers allowed him, in some ways, to have his cake and eat it, too. He’d painted himself as a small-government advocate, but he wasn’t a demagogue; he was a pragmatist at heart. His socially conservative beliefs might have hindered him eventually, but at the time, Sanford’s future was looking rosy indeed.

Then, in June of 2009, something strange happened. He disappeared. No one knew where he was. No one had talked to him. Sound strange? That’s because it was. And the confusion was nationwide. The Huffington Post reported at the time:

South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford has been hiking along the Appalachian Trail, a spokesman said Monday night, explaining a dayslong absence that perplexed fellow state leaders.

Sanford hadn’t been at work for several days and his office hadn’t been in touch with him. The lieutenant governor, other fellow lawmakers and even his wife said they didn’t know where he was, leading critics to question who was in charge of South Carolina.

“I cannot take lightly that his staff has not had communication with him for more than four days, and that no one, including his own family, knows his whereabouts,” said Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer. Bauer said he’d been rebuffed by the governor’s staff when he tried to find out where Sanford was.

To be fair, Sanford’s staff made a valiant effort to spin the situation, harping on the fact that he was an avid outdoorsman and dodging questions about timing or circumstance. All we knew was that an American governor had literally vanished into thin air.

The South Carolina voters were angry, and with good reason. Sanford drew ire from both sides of the aisle for his stunt, with Fox News reporting:

“This is bizarre thought process and bizarre actions. It just shouldn’t happen,” said state Sen. Jake Knotts, a fellow Republican who is also a known Sanford critic. “What would the world think if the president did that?”

Knotts told he has no problem with Sanford taking some time off but that he should be reachable — or submit written notice ahead of time transferring authority to the lieutenant governor in his absence. He said the governor was pulling a “shenanigan.”

The state constitution says that the lieutenant governor has the authority to act in the governor’s place during an emergency.

But Carol Fowler, South Carolina Democratic Party chairwoman, said that since the constitution does not define emergency, a tornado or prison problem or some other issue could have triggered a “constitutional crisis” about who wields authority in his absence.

“The governor just abandoned his job,” she told Fowler said the move doesn’t bode well for Sanford’s rumored interest in a 2012 presidential bid, either.

There were rumors, of course, about what the Appalachian Trail adventure was really about. Some speculated he’d come unhinged after feeling forced to accept $700 million in stimulus funds. It was a strange theory, to be sure. But truth, in this instance, was stranger than fiction. On June 24th, 2009, Sanford was seen in an Atlanta airport, having just gotten back from Argentina – a far cry from Appalachian hiking. The State reported:

Sanford, in a brief interview with The State in the nation’s busiest airport, said he decided at the last minute to go to the South American country to recharge after a difficult legislative session in which he battled with lawmakers over how to spend federal stimulus money.

Sanford said he had considered hiking on the Appalachian Trail, an activity he said he has enjoyed since he was a high school student.

“But I said ‘no’ I wanted to do something exotic,” Sanford said “… It’s a great city.”

Sanford said he has been to the city twice before, most recently about a year and half ago during a Commerce Department trip.

Sanford said he was alone on the trip. He declined to give any additional details about what he did other than to say he drove along the coastline.

If you think that story sounds fishy, you’re not the only one. The deluge of press attention that followed Sanford’s return from South America didn’t last long, though. Realizing he was drowning, Sanford called a press conference before he could even talk with his family. As it turned out, it would be one of the most bizarre and meandering press conferences… well, ever. (Longer video, but you’ll be spellbound. Just watch it.)

Read the transcript of the press conference here.

To say this was a bombshell doesn’t really do the scene justice. The chattering class exploded, and the story got more and more sordid with time. At first, there were those who believed the whole circus had been a mass cover up on Sanford’s behalf,  but it became clear that no one had known where he was. Under the terms of the separation from his wife, he could have no contact with his family, so they didn’t know. He hadn’t told his staff where he was, so they didn’t know. He had literally gone off the grid.

Though he firmly denied any wrongdoing, he was brought up on 37 separate ethics charges related to misappropriation of state and campaign resources in his personal affairs, and agreed to pay $74,000 in fines for the charges.

Let’s recap, shall we?

  • Sanford disappeared from his office for six days without telling anyone where he was going, abandoning his responsibilities and ignoring his obligation to the people of South Carolina. 
  • Sanford disappeared from his office for six days in a foreign country without telling anyone where he was, presenting a major potential security threat.
  • Sanford, who built his political brand on his personal faith, carried out a long-standing affair with another woman behind his wife’s back.
  • Sanford, who built his career, in part, on calling out the shortcomings of President Bill Clinton, lied to the public about his whereabouts, and continued to try to cover it up after returning home, only coming clean when he’d been clearly caught.
  • Sanford firmly denied any wrongdoing in terms of misappropriating state funds for personal use, but paid the fines, and wants us to take his word for it despite his track record of dishonesty.

In spite of all this, Republicans in South Carolina decided they still want him in public office. In spite of all this, he’s viewed as having an advantage over Colbert Busch in the state.

You’ve got to be kidding me.

What’s almost funny in all of this is the amount of people trying to justify Sanford’s political resurgence by drawing comparisons with Bill Clinton’s sexual missteps. But let’s not pretend Sanford is somehow better than Clinton in this regard. They both had affairs. They both lied. Clinton lied under oath; that’s about the only level on which Sanford’s decisions are not equal. But Sanford also attempted to lie and cover up the story. In fact, had he not been caught in the airport, he may have kept on lying to the South Carolina voters and American public. Pair this with the ethics charges on misuse of state and campaign funds, and the comparisons ring hollow. And bottom line? Clinton never fell off the face of the planet for a week.

But the comparisons are largely irrelevant. Clinton isn’t running for public office anymore, nor will he be anytime soon; Sanford is. Who was skeezier in their stint as slimeball supreme doesn’t change the fact that both made some crappy decisions. Look, I’m not even all that irked by the affair. Do I think it reeks of hypocrisy? Obviously, but that’s par for the course in politics. I’m sympathetic to the idea that politicians should probably not participate in extramarital affairs because it leaves them vulnerable to extortion, or may compromise confidential state information. That being said, that wasn’t an issue here, and I would be a hypocrite to hold Sanford to a different standard than I do Clinton or any other politician on the matter.

So the affair really isn’t the problem here. The problem is that he disappeared. The problem is that he lied about where he was during that disappearance. The problem is that, while there is evidence we can point to which indicates he misused state and campaign funds for his affair, we’ll never see his side vetted in a legal proceeding. The problem is that Sanford is unreliable, dishonest, and, if his past behavior is any indication, potentially unbalanced.

This is not a Cinderella story; it’s a tragic comment on the state of political affairs today. The tender moment depicted above with Sanford and his mistress-turned-fiance is not uplifting; it’s theater of the absurd. His tale is not one of redemption and forgiveness; it’s tribute to the inconsistency in American voter priorities. We’re not watching a feel good underdog political story; we’re caught in the middle of a nightmare. Here’s hoping the voters in South Carolina realize that before it’s too late.



  1. Amen, amen, and more amen. I live and work in DC, and Sanford is still the butt of many a joke here. “Hiking the Appalachian Trail” has gone into the annals of awful explanations made by politicians for their personal misdoings — it’s right next to Larry Craig’s alleged “wide stance.”

  2. Thank you for your post. Well said. I’m a South Carolina transplant and have lived here for around a decade. More than likely Sanford will win. SC is a red state.

    You said: “The problem is that Sanford is unreliable, dishonest, and, if his past behavior is any indication, potentially unbalanced.”

    Sadly, that pretty much sums up Congress. He should fit right in.

    “Suppose you were an idiot, and suppose you were a member of Congress; but I repeat myself.” ~Mark Twain

  3. Oh, he’ll win. Look out DC–because South Carolinians would rather have a Republican who is “unreliable, dishonest, and, if his past behavior is any indication, potentially unbalanced” than a Democrat of any kind in office. That’s just how we roll around here–sad but true. Embarassing. But True.

  4. I’m not a Republican and I have no interest in defending Sanford, but I just don’t understand this part:

    “And bottom line? Clinton never fell off the face of the planet for a week.”

    We’re talking about infidelity and destroyed marriages (potential in Clinton’s case and real in Sanford’s case), but you think the real scandal is that we didn’t know where he was for a few days? That’s the “bottom line” that makes him worse than Clinton?

    1. I don’t really care who he sleeps with, but I do care that he abandoned his post. Having an affair does not necessarily impact one’s ability to do their job, but the kind of irresponsibility and immaturity that goes into the decision to go gallivanting… anywhere, to do anything… without telling anyone where you are? Yes, imo, that’s way worse in terms of measuring a person for office suitability.

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