Day 4: Second Chance: The Mark Sanford Story
Mark Sanford's victory in last week's 1st District congressional race capped another chapter in his amazing political journey. Inside today's paper, read the fourth excerpt from a new Post and Courier e-book, Second Chance: The Mark Sanford Story, which will be published soon on numerous e-reader platforms. The book includes photos and unpublished emails between Mark and Jenny Sanford, along with a full account of Sanford's bruising quest for redemption.
The briny waters of the Coosaw River felt good in the mornings, cleansing, and when the river was cold, it delivered a shock that left any remnants of sleep behind. In 2011, after leaving the governor's office for good, Mark Sanford sought refuge where he always had, in Coosaw's currents, which tugged him this way or that depending on the tide; under the limbs of Coosaw's great live oaks, their limbs holding long gray beards of moss.
After his collapse on June 24, 2009, at the Statehouse, he had kept moving largely because of the momentum generated by his normal gubernatorial duties and fights to keep his job. But now those tasks were done, and with few things to distract him from facing his failure, he retreated to Coosaw and fell into a deep funk.
Some days he spent hours reading books. Or he went out on the track hoe, watching the metal bucket dig into Coosaw's soil. He had dug holes all over Coosaw, once telling a reporter that the simple act of moving earth one scoop at a time was therapeutic. His father was out there in a hole his family had dug so long ago. What would Doc Sanford have thought about it all?
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The Sunday after the press conference, Sanford had asked John Rainey, the friend who had first urged him to run for governor, to have dinner in the Governor's Mansion. Ever formal, Rainey wore a jacket. As usual, Sanford was dressed like he was about to watch a football game on television. With Jenny and the boys gone, the mansion seemed more like a museum than a home. Busts and portraits of past governors lined halls with high ceilings. The dining room had a giant white mantel and a 20-foot-long mahogany table. To Rainey, Sanford looked defeated; his eyes were heavy and dark; and yet, despite what had happened, Sanford displayed flashes of hubris.
“Do you think I have a political future?” he asked Rainey.
Rainey had seen politicians such as Bill Clinton, and farther back, Richard Nixon, resurrect careers many had written off, but he didn't think it was time to stoke Sanford's ambitions.
“As of tonight, the answer is no,” Rainey said.
Sanford grew solemn. It was the biggest crisis in his life. Thoughts drifted to his father. He locked eyes with Rainey, who was older than him by a generation. Talk to me like a father would, he asked.
“There's one thing you can't do, and that's quit,” Rainey said. “Mark, do you remember what Richard Nixon said when he was defeated in California?”
“Richard Nixon said, 'A man isn't finished when he's defeated. He's finished when he quits.' ”
Rainey had also counseled Sanford not to add fuel to the media fire, but a few days later, Sanford had offered even more details about his inner struggles in two long interviews with the Associated Press. Get it all out there, he had thought. Purge. And start again. This openness had served him well over the years as he campaigned.
Not this time. In the interviews, he described Maria Belen Chapur as his “soul mate,” and that he still loved her.
“This was a whole lot more than a simple affair; this was a love story,” he told the reporters. “A forbidden one, a tragic one, but a love story at the end of the day.” And yet, he also was trying to fall back in love with Jenny. “I owe it too much to my boys and to the last 20 years with Jenny to not try this larger walk of faith.” Love versus duty. He told the Associated Press reporters that he had crossed lines with other women but never had sex with them. “What I would say is that I've never had sex with another woman. Have I done stupid? I have. You know you meet someone. You dance with them. You go to a place where you probably shouldn't have gone.” But his time with Belen was different, he said. He had crossed a line there. He had seen her five times in the previous year, including a stay in Manhattan and another in the Hamptons. Both trips were paid for in cash so no one would know.
Instead of clearing the air, it had only added more gas to the Sanford bonfire. “Blubbering Love Gov. Mark Sanford tears up again over 'soul mate,'” said the headline in The New York Daily News. David Letterman quipped on his late-night show, “Gov. Mark Sanford disappeared, and it turned out he was in South America. And then it turned out he was down there because he was sleeping with a woman from Argentina. Once again, foreigners taking jobs that Americans won't do.”
Some had come to his defense. Rush Limbaugh argued that President Barach Obama's stimulus package had pushed Sanford over the edge. “This is almost like, “I don't give a damn, the country's going to hell in a hand-basket, I just want out of here. He had just tried to fight the stimulus money coming to South Carolina. He didn't want any part of it. He lost the battle. He said, 'What the hell. I mean, I'm — the federal government's taking over — what the hell, I want to enjoy life.'”
But countless jokes on Twitter and Facebook showed that Sanford's life had moved into a different realm, from the political arena to one inhabited by celebrities, paparazzi and late-night comedians. “It's interesting to discover that the governor who didn't want stimulus funds was getting stimulated elsewhere!” one tweet said. “So does a career go down the toilet the other direction in Argentina?” said another. Mark Sanford had gone viral.
He had bigger things to worry about than jokes back then. He was getting divorced; state legislators called for his resignation. The state attorney general investigated his travels. Sanford delivered a personal check for nearly $3,000 to reimburse the state for the 2008 trip to Argentina. Lawmakers threatened to impeach him, but censured him instead for bringing “ridicule, dishonor, disgrace, and shame on the governor's office and the state of South Carolina.” The South Carolina Ethics Commission charged him with 37 ethics violations, including using tax dollars for business-class flights and campaign funds for non-campaign purposes. He fought back at first, arguing that other governors had flown business-class, but these explanations fell flat. For years, he had touted his frugality, and now he was saying it was OK to fly business class? He had not met his own standards, and people were calling him on it. In the end, he paid a record $74,000 fine to settle the charges.
“It's time to move on,” he had said in a statement. “While I believe I would be vindicated on all these matters if there were ever a full airing, the people of South Carolina have moved on from all that unfolded last summer, and this administration has moved on as well.”
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Now that he was out of office and divorced, invitations to dinner dried up. Few emails came in. When he ventured out to a soccer game with one of his sons, he noticed the body language of the soccer moms and how they moved away from his seat. Many people he had counted as friends stopped calling. His friend Tom Davis would say later, “He didn't have to wait to find out who would show up at his funeral.”
Down river from Coosaw's main house was a creek separating a plot with a dune shaded by a stand of pines. It had long been one of his favorite spots there. A spit of sand curled off into the river, which had a wide-open view facing the water's flow toward the sea.
After so much destruction, Mark felt an overwhelming need to build something. So he and his sons built a small wooden bridge over the creek. On the dune, they spent three months building a single-story cabin. He wanted an inviting place for his boys when they visited, a man cave, so he filled it with a pool table, ping pong and other games.
All this work with his hands gave him time to think about what had happened.
Because he had lost his father when he was relatively young, he never had a chance to know him other than someone who was larger than life. Doc Sanford had rigid views about work, frugality and other aspects of life. “Maybe wrong, but never in doubt,” Sanford later would describe him. And once his father was gone, Sanford took those views to a new level, like a dutiful son. This rigidity may have worked in the operating room, or a farm in a remote area of the Lowcountry, but it came across as hubris and narcissism when applied to politics and marriage. His father's legacy had affected all of the children. For his brother John, it had led to taking chances: flying aerobatic airplanes, taking financial risks. John found himself constantly trying to prove himself worthy to an apparition. When Sarah was married, she walked down the aisle alone, but imagining that her father was by her side, telling others, “My dad was with me. My Dad walked me down the aisle.” For Mark, his father's death fueled ambitions to lead, to try to do the right thing even when his heart told him to do something else. Now this conflict between heart and head had destroyed his family, ruined his career and made him a laughingstock.
The cabin's walls were filled with photographs — pictures of him standing next to Arnold Schwarzenegger; children leaping off the Coosaw dock; Newt Gingrich shaking one of his sons' hands. In one corner he hung frames of newspaper front pages with banner headlines announcing his election wins. To the right, he placed two photographs: One was of him on the first floor of the Statehouse surrounded by all the cameras, the event that symbolized the death of his marriage and the collapse of his political career. Underneath that photograph was another of him, tired, defeated, looking down, surrounded by cameras as he walked to a budget meeting. A fight had almost broken out as videographers tried to get angles, and he had said, “Guys, let's handle it with as much grace as we can. I'm not going to run inside.”
In his mind, he thought it would be dishonest to hide those moments from himself and his sons. He had to learn something from what happened, use it as a lesson, build something from the mess he'd made.
Denial, anger, bargaining, depression. As the days passed on Coosaw, he experienced all of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief. Then, something else. Oddly enough, he would say later, there was something freeing about public failure. He didn't have to pretend to be perfect anymore. He was broken, imperfect, and nothing he could do would fix that. And from that brokenness, maybe you could go beyond your desire to satisfy your ego, or the notion of earning your way to heaven. Redemption wasn't about striving to achieve some goal, he thought. It was about surrender and going with life's flow.