Last year Jenny Sanford became an unwilling recruit to the scorned political wives club, whose members include Elizabeth Edwards and Silda Wall Spitzer. If you’re going to be a member, though, you might as well be one of the standouts.
The affairs of South Carolina governors don’t usually make international headlines, but Mark Sanford managed to call attention to his indiscretions in every way possible. He had left his four sons unattended on Father’s Day to go “hiking on the Appalachian Trail,” which turned out to actually be Argentina, where his paramour lived.
That wasn’t the only wrong turn: Sanford undermined a teary-eyed public confession and vows to work on his marriage with wistful declarations about his “soul mate” on a distant continent and hints about other indiscretions.
Unlike political wives past, Mrs. Sanford was nowhere to be seen at the June 24 press conference. By that date, she had known about the affair for six months, although her husband had promised that the relationship was over. Enough was enough: She had four sons to take care of.
Jenny Sanford seemed equipped to handle this disgrace with startling acuity, from her forgiving but no-nonsense statement to her finesse with the press, including a Barbara Walters interview that landed her on the Most Intriguing list for 2009.
As quaint as it sounds, her manners smacked of good breeding. Likely her years as a Harvard-educated lawyer (as well as her shaping of her husband’s political career) had honed her razor-sharp timing and sense of the public opinion. And she gave her spouse just enough rope to hang himself before she left him swinging.
Her book publisher may have denied that the rush to print had anything to do with the upcoming divorce, but Jenny Sanford’s timing kicked into gear again when her memoir debuted in February rather than the planned May publication date. “Staying True,” an oh-so-clever title that hit on fidelity and self-respect, weighed in at only 256 pages but was long enough to get across the pointed details of her pain and that of her sons. (One boy declared the affair “worse than Spitzer.”)
Like a lawyer laying out a case, she detailed the signs that a good wife overlooks (such as Mark’s insistence on dropping the word “faithful” from wedding vows) and what a husband expects a wife to endure (like his statement about whether he would regret not going to Argentina, about which Mrs. Sanford archly wrote, “Clearly these are thoughts I wish he had kept to himself.”)
Sanford showed wronged wives everywhere not only how to leave, but also how to do so with grace. About 8.6 million viewers tuned in for her side of the story, as told to Barbara Walters on “20/20.” The hardback made the top 10 on the New York Times bestseller list. Her husband, meanwhile, paid $74,000 in fines to settle his ethics case over his travel and campaign expenses.
And if there were any signs of moping (she admitted to being “in a puddle for six months“), Jenny Sanford erased those by briskly going back on the dating circuit. Nor was she out of the political life yet: She endorsed Representative Nikki Haley, who ended up replacing the outgoing Sanford in the governor’s seat.
Mrs. Sanford made a tidy enough living weighing in on mistresses and plugging “Staying True” — one address to University of South Carolina students earned her $15,000. As for future plans, a novel and a 9-to-5 job may be in her future, but in 2010, the first lady of South Carolina was busy serving up revenge as an elegant and tasty dish.
–Vera H-C Chan