Sanford in Chicago

Former S.C. Gov. and congressman Mark Sanford speaks to a University of Chicago student April 10 as part of his fellowship at the school's Institute of Politics.

CHICAGO — Wearing South Carolina's unofficial work casual uniform — blue blazer, white checkered shirt and khakis, Mark Sanford ducks inside the University of Chicago's Institute of Politics to escape the chilling afternoon rain. He walks past framed presidential campaign posters and a Florida voting machine used in the 2000 election on the way to his office.

The former congressman and governor admits being a two-month political fellow 900 miles from Charleston is surreal. This is the first time he's working somewhere outside South Carolina and Washington, D.C., and he's not nearly as recognized.

"It's like an endless conversation when I'm home, it never stops," Sanford says. "Here, you're just some random middle-aged guy."

But Sanford, 58, finds himself at a crossroads.

He's no longer in politics after leaving Congress four months ago. His four boys are out of the house. And for the first time in his life, he stayed overnight in a hospital after a minor heart procedure in December.

"There's a lot more than just the eight weeks at play," he says of his time in Chicago.

Without the distractions of home, including puttering around his Beaufort farm, Sanford says he's on something of a spiritual retreat.

"It is allowing 'think time' that I have not had for the last 25 years of life," he says. 

Sanford hopes to leave Chicago at the end of May with clarity about his next step, which he wants to consider carefully. A friend mentioned recently how Sanford was getting close to retirement age.

"It was like a knife through the heart," Sanford says. "His point was, 'You're not going to get a great job in your 80s. You have one last bet to place.' "

Sanford did not rule out a return to politics but has no immediate desire to run.

"If there's anybody who's ever learned you never to say never, it would be me. But I don't see it," he says. "So I have a bunch of friends who said you ought to run for mayor of Charleston. You've got to got feel it. I don't."

At the University of Chicago, he is offering eight seminars and is meeting with students. Vikram Prasad, a political science major from New Jersey, visits a day after Sanford's seminar, "I Am a Conservative & Why You Want to Become One Too!" to ask why he chose his political views.

Sanford's other seminars include "The Dangers of Isolation in Politics: Four Lessons from My Mistakes" and "You Can’t Have It All — the Trade-Offs of Life & Politics."

"What I'm trying to do is give students a download of what I learned the hard way over my 25 years," Sanford says. "Part of it is issues based, but part of it is just life."

Sanford's 2009 extramarital affair that damaged his final years as governor is up for discussion. 

"If they can't get it from me, they can Google it," he says. "Let's take the highlights, the lowlights, the blemishes, all of it and let's talk about it in terms of lessons learned." 

And as part of his personal reflection, Sanford is looking at why he is no longer in office. The Donald Trump critic who lost to a Trump fan in last year's GOP congressional primary has a seminar called, "Size Matters — the President's Microphone Is Bigger Than Yours."

"The Republican Party right now is very much in lockstep with the president. So you're like, 'Am I crazy or are they crazy?' " Sanford says. "It causes some rather intense soul searching: 'Did I just waste X number of years?' given the way the landscape has changed."

David Axelrod​, the former Barack Obama campaign strategist who directs the Institute of Politics, says he approached Sanford because he wanted to share the South Carolina politician's unique history in office with students.

"There's a lot of for them to grab onto," Axelrod says. "Our job is not to buff up public service and make it appear like an unambiguously positive experience."  

Sanford's fellowship comes after sorting through two large shipping containers filled with 25 years of political papers, mementos and campaign material. He set aside some papers for archives but gave away or threw away much of it. Seeing bits of his past was cathartic but has become part of the journey to shape his future.

"You look back now at pictures of me from 2008, and, even though I was very much on the way up politically, I look at those pictures and I think, 'What a child?' " Sanford says. "I look back and think I didn't know anything about anything.

"Not until you go through the chapters I went through subsequently, do you end with a whole much richer, much deeper level of understanding and appreciation for life itself."

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Columbia Bureau Chief

Andy Shain runs The Post and Courier's team based in South Carolina's capital city. He was editor of Free Times and has been a reporter and editor for newspapers in Charlotte, Columbia and Myrtle Beach.

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