I see now that June 24, 2009, was a day that changed forever the trajectory of my life, but it did not change me.
I woke up early that day, as I have always done during our summers at the beach. The boys and I were at our house on Sullivan’s Island, where we had moved when the school year ended a few weeks earlier. My mornings there began with a sunrise cup of coffee in the hour before the boys woke. I savored that quiet time alone as the kitchen filled with light and I wrote in my journal. I jotted thoughts, rarely a narrative of events, and usually reflected on a passage of scripture. My devotions had become more urgent and searching in the six months since I discovered that my husband, Mark Sanford, the governor of South Carolina, was having an affair with a woman in Argentina.
As I sat on a stool at the kitchen island writing, I knew Mark’s flight from Buenos Aires was about to touch down. He had been out of the state (though the world didn’t yet know how far he’d wandered) for several days. The media and his political opponents were asking pointed questions about where he was, but only a few reporters had called me. Being on Sullivan’s— two hours away from the state capital, Columbia— was a blessing on that front. I’d found out only the day before that Mark was in South America. Within hours, the world would know, and the press would be hovering at the end of our driveway.
The truth was that Mark and I had been quietly separated and had not spoken for two weeks, at my request, with clear restrictions on contact with the Argentinean woman he had started an affair with a year earlier. If he and I were to have a chance at reconciliation, he agreed not to contact her or the boys and me while he sorted things out. Cut off this way, I hoped, Mark might understand what it would be like to lose his family in the form he’d always known it. I wanted Mark to ache for what he’d always said mattered most to him. I thought he got it. Before he left to “get his head right,” as he’d explained it to the boys, he looked me straight in the eye and said, “I will not see her.” That morning I knew he had broken that promise.
My prayers were brief but pointed: “Lord give me strength. Lord let Mark find you. Lord protect our boys.” So many times, I had prayed for the patience to wait this out, or for understanding for him and for me. I felt the full weight of the day ahead on my shoulders. This time when I clasped my hands and shut my eyes, I prayed that the Lord would grant me the strength to protect our children in the ugly time ahead, and I prayed for Mark who was clearly lost.
The only one of the four boys at home that morning was thirteen- year- old Bolton, who was about to leave for a day of fishing with his uncle and cousin. As he gobbled down his breakfast, I pictured our dear friend and Mark’s long- time aide, Chris Allen, picking up Mark at the Atlanta airport. A loyal young man who had recently tied his business goals to Mark’s political future, Chris had driven through the night to be there when Mark landed. By now, they were on the road to Columbia. I wondered if Mark understood that the whole country, it seemed, wanted a full description of his “hiking the Appalachian Trail.”
The phone rang. It was Mark calling from the car. “Hey, how are you?” he asked quietly.
“How am I? How do you think I am?” I sighed. “Jenny, be gentle with me,” he said in a tired voice. “Gentle?” I asked incredulously. “Do you know what kind of a storm you are returning to? And where do we stand?”
“The good news is it’s over now,” he said of his affair, and then added, “I’ve already met a reporter at the airport and told her of my love of adventure travel and so on. I’ll call you after I get to Columbia.”
I asked again, “What about us?”
“I told you it’s all behind us . . . everything’s good.”
Good?! What part of this did he think was good? I wondered. I had been anticipating this call, searching for the right way to respond, but everything about his manner caught me off guard, beginning with his blasé tone. I don’t know what he could have said to soothe me, but at least I expected an apology and some expression of regret. I hadn’t detected a note of that in his voice. He was riding down the highway with Chris arranging for a press conference later that morning and I was one of a number of things he was dealing with. By the time we hung up, I hoped it was slowly dawning on him that this story about his “adventure” wasn’t going to hold.
There had been many a morning in the six months since I discovered his affair when I had cried about the state of my marriage, and just as many evenings spent praying with my two girlfriends Frannie and Lalla Lee. This morning, at least, I wasn’t going to cry. I was the one who needed to get my head right. I grabbed my iPod, smeared on some sunblock, and headed out the back gate to the beach, some two hundred yards away.
The sun was moving quickly higher in the slate blue sky and the air was hot and sticky, but that thickness didn’t dim the sparkle of the sea. My spirit lifted as soon as I set my flipflops in the sand. Orange and yellow wildflowers lined the path behind our house that leads to the shore. “His Strength Is Perfect” was the first tune on my iPod, which helped my spirits too, as I emerged from the corridor of low dunes and saw the broad beach before me.
This was not in my control, not in my hands, I thought, as the song changed to “I Can Only Imagine.” What my future held was something I, the woman who always thought years ahead, now couldn’t imagine. Could I imagine a life without Mark, the man whose ambitions had been the center of all that we had done as a family for twenty years? Without him, what was our direction? And how did he feel about me now that he had seen her? Once we got through this day, both of us had life- changing decisions to make. I walked more quickly along the shore, smiling when I saw dolphins playing in the surf. At the beach, I feel wondrously small; my problems are insignificant in this big, beautiful world. This would all sort itself out, and at some point, I would know what to do next. I felt certain of that and that only. I breathed steadily, more deeply, and drank in the peace the sea affords, a tremendous luxury in a world and life otherwise very public.
When I returned, I found that Lalla Lee Campsen, one of my oldest friends in South Carolina, had let herself in. Of course she was there. I could have guessed that she would be from the moment I turned up the path home. She sat at the kitchen island with a notepad and a pen, fielding calls. Petite, bright-eyed, and always smiling, Lalla Lee was the first of Mark’s childhood friends to embrace me when this Midwestern Catholic girl found herself living in the Deep South. In those carefree days before politics consumed my time, we’d boated together and played many sets of tennis. Our boys had become good friends, almost as close as Lalla Lee and I had. I was grateful for her steady presence. Whatever this day brought me, we would face it together.
I heard the door to the carport slam and went to the top of the stairs to see Frannie Reese, my closest friend on the island, sprinting upstairs toward me, a bundle of energy in her shorts and bathing suit. She had two cups from Starbucks and handed me one. When we first moved to Sullivan’s Island back in 1998, Frannie’s husband, Tim, was away almost as much as Mark had been during his years serving in Congress. She and I started out as carpool pals, but within months we were picking up each other’s kids after school, taking them to appointments and to practices and eating dinner frequently at each other’s homes, herding our kids around like one big mob. Recently, when my sister Kathy moved to Charleston and had a baby of her own, she fell seamlessly into Frannie’s generosity. Frannie came to see how I was doing that morning. She said she’d be back before Mark’s press conference. I retreated to shower and freshen up.
As I finished getting dressed, I heard Kathy’s boisterous voice filling the main room as she came through the front door. She’s an artist with a wicked sense of humor who, like our mom, knows how to make an entrance. “He wasn’t hiking the Appalachian Trail,” she announced. “He was getting Argentine tail!” I laughed. How good it felt to laugh!
Unbidden, my local sisterhood had assembled itself at my house, and my sister Gier was on the plane here from Chicago. So, too, was my dad, who would be arriving within an hour or two. I thought of Blake and Landon, ages ten and fifteen, four miles off the coast deep- sea fishing with Lalla Lee’s sons and a friend, and Marshall, our oldest, in the Caribbean, for a two- week summer job. I paused next to the bed that Mark and I shared, to appreciate how truly I loved and was loved and how nothing that happened that day could take any of that from me.
Out in the kitchen, Kathy and Lalla Lee urged me to eat, but I had no appetite. We picked at the salads that Kathy thought to bring. The phone continued to ring, but we were screening the calls. It seemed we were hunkered down in a safe zone, in our cinder- block fortress by the sea, waiting for the next shoe to drop.
“So, Jenny, while you were in the shower Mark called again,” Lalla Lee told me reluctantly.
“Are you kidding?” Kathy said, grinning at me. “I gave him a piece of my mind when I answered Jenny’s cell. Of course, he thought I was her for a while.”
I shook my head, imagining what Kathy had let loose on Mark. Kathy and I have had our sisterly spats, but we are fiercely protective of each other. I felt safer with her around. After lunch, Chris Allen patched through Mark, who was polling those he trusted on how much he should reveal. “Should I tell everything?” he asked, businesslike still.
“Whatever you think is right,” I said. “What does Lerner say?” I asked, referring to our longtime media adviser and friend in DC.
“He says not to get into too much detail,” Mark sighed.
I agree with that. But you have to be honest about where you were and why.” This was Mark at the mansion and in work mode. I had long ago come to understand that private talk would have to wait.
The day before, when I knew for certain that Mark was in Argentina, I reached out to my family in Chicago, and my dad volunteered to fly to Charleston to be at my side, as had Gier. In the coming weeks, there would be a time when I would need my mom’s lively spirit and take- charge attitude, but that day I needed Dad and his calm. I was folding laundry mindlessly, trying to keep busy, when he pulled into the driveway. Just the sight of him, tidy in his pressed khakis and golf shirt, made me feel more firmly anchored to the ground. Yet all I could manage was a weak smile when he walked through the door. Since Mark confessed his affair to him a few weeks earlier, Dad and I had spoken many times. Now we hugged, not saying much. Up close, I saw the pain he carried in his eyes. I was not sure what there was to say.
Mark called again, first announcing that the press conference would be later in the afternoon.
“The State has some of our emails,” he admitted. I understood that the “our” of that statement did not refer to me, but to his correspondence with his lover. If they were anything like the racy letter I’d discovered in Mark’s desk that January, I needed to brace myself for another public humiliation.
“How many do they have? How long have they had them?”
“I don’t know.”
So, my best political, if not spousal, advice: “Well, be honest and get it over with. Whatever you do, don’t talk about your heart.”
Then Gier arrived with her boys and mimicked how she had waved as they drove past the reporters and photographers who slumped, bored, in the driveway. It was time for Mark’s press conference, and we all crammed into my bedroom, some holding hands as we watched Mark enter the Capitol rotunda. He walked, distracted and guilty, to the podium, squirming, not knowing how to begin. Frannie is the type who likes to ask questions and she started up. I had to caution her that I wanted to hear every word. We were somber and a little frightened as Mark started to ramble. He spent considerable time— it seemed like an eternity— apologizing to everyone in his life, every citizen of the state, people of faith all over the world. Then he revealed the state of his heart. He described days spent crying in Argentina with his lover.
I still don’t quite know why I wanted to hear every syllable, but it felt important to bear witness to this in real time, to hear what the watching public was hearing. That said, I am grateful to this day that I can’t remember much of it. While it was going on, I was in such shock, it felt as though this was happening to someone else. I wished that were true. Out the bedroom window, I saw a bright orange container ship heading out to sea on its way to Turkey or China. What I wouldn’t have given to be on it!
Finally, no longer able to stand the sight of Mark pining away with tears streaming down his face, Kathy looked at Lalla Lee and said exactly what all of us were thinking, “Will you call someone and tell them to please pull him away from that camera?” Lalla Lee called Chris Allen to suggest this, but the press conference did not end.
As Mark carried on, Kathy moaned, “Let’s just end this!” As if taking a cue from his vocal sister- in- law, Mark did finally finish, but then the commentators began talking about “another politician who cheated on his wife.” Wronged Political Spouses is a list no one wants to be on, but now my name would be featured there. Immediately my cell phone rang. It was Mark. Lalla returned to the kitchen to handle the house phone and Frannie went too, to make dinner. I took the call on the porch.
“How’d I do?” he asked.
“Are you kidding me? You cried for her and said little of me or of the boys.” I guess he’d forgotten I was not the one to praise this performance.
We hung up, and I went to the study above my bedroom for some privacy. I wanted to say something, to respond, to react, even though I knew that was not the usual protocol followed by betrayed political wives. I’d already missed the part in this ritual where I would stand with head bowed next to him in front of hundreds of cameras as he made his shameful admission. (If I’d been there, perhaps he’d have gotten off the stage sooner.) I had never considered myself a traditional political spouse, though, and this wasn’t the moment to start being one. I had been working on a statement.
The night before, over dinner at the Campsens, we had discussed what I could say. Once home, I wrote a formal onepage statement. Now I reviewed what I’d written to see if it still reflected what I felt. It did. I wasn’t ashamed and I wanted no one’s pity. I asked my dad to read my statement and he suggested a few minor adjustments. Those done, I sent it to my assistant in the First Lady’s Office, who emailed it to the local and national press. I also walked down the driveway and handed it to the reporters gathered there. Handing over my statement gave me a wonderful sense of release. I knew there would be endless requests for interviews in the coming days and weeks, and Mark and I would engage in more painful conversations. For that moment, though, my thinking was complete. I truly believed I would be able to enjoy a relaxed dinner with my family, and I really couldn’t wait to hug the boys as they returned home. I knew in my heart that whether I reconciled with my husband or not, saying what I truly felt at this time of personal crisis would begin a new chapter in my life. I did what seemed reasonable to me and it seems to have opened new doors: doors to sharing, doors to friendship, doors to some kind of peace.
Statement from First Lady Jenny Sanford
(Released 5:19 p.m., June 24, 2009)
I would like to start by saying I love my husband and I believe I have put forth every effort possible to be the best wife I can be during our almost twenty years of marriage. As well, for the last fifteen years my husband has been fully engaged in public service to the citizens and taxpayers of this state and I have faithfully supported him in those efforts to the best of my ability. I have been and remain proud of his accomplishments and his service to this state.
I personally believe that the greatest legacy I will leave behind in this world is not the job I held on Wall Street, or the campaigns I managed for Mark, or the work I have done as First Lady or even the philanthropic activities in which I have been routinely engaged. Instead, the greatest legacy I will leave in this world is the character of the children I, or we, leave behind. It is for that reason that I deeply regret the recent actions of my husband Mark and their potential damage to our children.
I believe wholeheartedly in the sanctity, dignity, and importance of the institution of marriage. I believe that has been consistently reflected in my actions. When I found out about my husband’s infidelity I worked immediately to first seek reconciliation through forgiveness, and then to work diligently to repair our marriage. We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self- respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong. I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago.
This trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage. During this short separation it was agreed that Mark would not contact us. I kept this separation quiet out of respect of his public office and reputation, and in hopes of keeping our children from just this type of public exposure. Because of this separation, I did not know where he was in the past week.
I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal. I believe Mark has earned a chance to resurrect our marriage.
Psalm 127 states that sons are a gift from the Lord and children a reward from Him. I will continue to pour my energy into raising our sons to be honorable young men. I remain willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time, if he continues to work toward reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance.
This is a very painful time for us and I would humbly request now that members of the media respect the privacy of my boys and me as we struggle together to continue on with our lives and as I seek the wisdom of Solomon, the strength and patience of Job, and the grace of God in helping to heal my family.
From the Hardcover edition.