Day 3 Second Chance: The Mark Sanford Story

After an unexplained absence that left his staff and family unable to answer questions over his whereabouts, Gov. Mark Sanford admitted to an affair in 2009.

Wade Spees

Mark Sanford’s victory in last Tuesday’s congressional election added another chapter in his amazing political journey. Inside today’s paper is the third excerpt from a new Post and Courier e-book, “Second Chance: The Mark Sanford Story.” In the full e-book, which will be available soon, read intimate emails between Mark Sanford, his then-wife Jenny Sanford and his then-mistress Maria Belen Chapur as the controversy swirls around them, as well as the emails and letters people sent Jenny Sanford after her husband confessed to the affair. Previous excerpts explore Sanford’s childhood and how loss shaped his destiny.


By Tony Bartelme ||

Late on the morning of Monday, June 22, 2009, reporters and editors across South Carolina began to ask themselves and any source they could find: “Where the hell is Mark Sanford?”

For months, Sanford seemed to be everywhere as he fought and lost one legislative fight after another. The state’s Supreme Court handed down a decision forcing South Carolina to accept federal stimulus money. Sanford had called this decision one of his biggest disappointments in public life. State lawmakers once again tossed out his vetoes, ending yet another bruising legislative session. Lawmakers mocked his rigidity by calling him “His Excellency.” And now he was gone.

Jake Knotts, a rotund state senator from a suburb of Columbia, was one of the first to alert reporters. Knotts was a former police officer and coroner with short silver hair and heavy jowls. He had tried to build a heart center at a hospital in his district, but Sanford’s budget cuts sank those plans. He had good sources in state law enforcement circles and fed reporters what he had learned: The previous Thursday night, Sanford had taken a vehicle from his security detail and told his guards to stand down. “Ain’t nobody seen him or heard from him since,” Knotts told a reporter for The Post and Courier, Charleston’s newspaper. Thunder clouds began to rotate.

Reporters peppered Joel Sawyer, Sanford’s press secretary, with phone calls and emails. Why wasn’t Sanford answering phone calls or texts? Had something nefarious happened? Sawyer issued a statement: “The governor is taking some time away from the office this week to recharge after the stimulus battle and the legislative session and to work on a couple of projects that have fallen by the wayside.”

The statement quelled concerns about the governor being a victim of foul play but raised new questions. That afternoon, a reporter from The Post and Courier drove to Sullivan’s Island to find out what Jenny Sanford knew. It was sunny and warm and just late enough for the harsh afternoon light to soften the trees and bushes marking their driveway. The Sanford dogs lazed nearby. Bicycles lay on the ground. He climbed the steps and knocked. Jenny Sanford appeared but kept the screen door shut.

No, she said, she didn’t know where her husband was. Her eyes were slightly furrowed, and she spoke quickly, in bursts. As far as she knew, Mark had left Columbia to work on a writing project. “He’s done this before, gone off to clear his head.”


In the past, he went to the family farm in Beaufort County, she said. But no, she didn’t know if he was there, then volunteered: “He did miss Father’s Day.” Children’s voices were in the background. She turned toward the sounds and then back. She said she had to take care of her children.

The reporter left shaking his head. She seemed angry, but not at being disturbed, though that certainly might have been the case. It was something else. When Jenny’s vague answers made the news wires, it fed the mystery. Even the governor’s wife didn’t know where her husband was. By 5 p.m., Joel Sawyer’s in-box was filling with emails from Time, CNN and dozens of other national news outlets. CNN’s John King did his best to work Sawyer.

“John King here,” his email said. “First and foremost, I hope the governor is well. You don’t need me to tell you there is a lot of interest in what is happening. I’ve always appreciated his kindness, candor and hospitality — and yours — and wanted to offer you as sane a place as there is (I think) in my crazy business when you and/or he are ready to solve the mystery. I hope you are well amid the chaos.”

Sawyer did his best to minimize the situation: “Thank you John … no real mystery from our end, though I know the statement will appear somewhat ‘mysterious.’”

To Fox News, Sawyer emailed: “Yeah, all is well. Slow news day ...”

Some reporters tried to downplay the story as well. “Off the record,” a reporter for WIS-TV in Columbia wrote, “I think this whole thing is ridiculous.”

At one point, author and columnist Joel Mowbray wrote Sanford’s chief of staff, Scott English, a message titled “holy crap.”

“As if there hasn’t been enough local coverage, you’re about to get hit with a national media maelstrom,” Mowbray wrote. “Is everything OK? Even for Mark, disappearing without telling Jenny is a little nerve-wracking. I’m saying a prayer for him. Please tell me what you can.”

English fired back that Sanford’s disappearance was “much ado about nothing.” Behind the scenes, though, English had tried to reach Sanford on his personal and work cellphones 14 times the previous two days.

At 10 p.m. that Monday, Sawyer issued another statement. The governor wasn’t missing; he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.

l l l

Six months before, an anonymous tipster sent The State, Columbia’s newspaper, a batch of emails that ostensibly showed the governor having an affair with a woman in Argentina. The newspaper tried to find the source of the emails or verify them otherwise but was unsuccessful. They tucked them away.

But when Sanford disappeared, the editors and reporters thought again about the emails. What if he was in Argentina? On Tuesday, Sawyer still had few details about the whereabouts of his boss.

What part of the Appalachian Trail was he on?

“I’m not going to get into any specifics of his travel arrangements,” Sawyer replied. Why did he leave his car at the airport in Columbia? Sawyer had no answer for that, either. Then, he issued a new statement: Sanford had called Scott English, his chief of staff, and said that “it would be fair to say the governor was somewhat taken aback by all of the interest his trip has gotten.” He would be returning to the office Wednesday morning.

With a clue to his return, Gina Smith, a reporter for The State, set off to Atlanta’s airport 200 miles away. A Delta flight from Buenos Aires was landing at dawn Wednesday, and she would be there to see who got off.

She watched and waited as haggard passengers came down the hallway, then she saw him. Sanford wore a blue and white button-down shirt and brown denim pants, according to her account in The State. As they talked, he grew nervous.

“For several moments, he gazed off, searching for the words, his mouth opening, then closing. He seemed tired, deflated. And not because of a long international flight,” Smith wrote of the encounter. “Suddenly, he launched into a talk about his love of the Appalachian Trail and hikes he’d taken on it dating back to his high school years. That led him to talk of other ‘adventure trips’ he’d taken over the years, including his time in Congress, to recharge and regroup — the coast of Turkey, the Greek Islands, various parts of South America.”

But then he told her he had not in fact been hiking on the Appalachian Trail. He said he had at the last minute decided to go to South America to recharge.

Smith’s report generated more questions and requests. Stephen Colbert, the comedian, emailed Joel Sawyer, the press secretary: “Hi Joel, as you may know, I declared myself Governor of South Carolina last night. I went power mad for about 40 seconds before learning that Gov. Sanford was returning today. If the governor is looking for a friendly place to make light of what I think is a small story that got blown out of scale, I would be happy to have him on.”

Others weren’t so welcoming: “Lies. Lies. Lies. That’s all we get from his staff. That’s all we get from his people. That’s all we get from him,” Jake Knotts told reporters. “Why all the big cover-up?”

l l l

The press conference would be on the first floor of the Statehouse. Inside, the walls were made of white Georgian marble; the floors were pink and white marble; granite columns supported an arched ceiling. More than 50 reporters, photographers and videographers made a circle as Sawyer wheeled out a wooden podium. Television reporters planted a forest of microphones on it. Newspaper reporters jockeyed to fit between tripods. Tourists visiting the Statehouse stood by, smiling and turning to each other with puzzled looks. A few minutes after 2 p.m., Sanford walked into the scrum.

He wore a blue suit and looked tan but tired. He fumbled with his hands amid the microphones as the sounds of clicking camera shutters echoed through the room.

“I won’t begin in any particular spot. Let me just start with ... I don’t see her, where’s Gina Smith? Not here? Ok. I had a conversation with Gina Smith this morning when I arrived in Atlanta and I told her about my love of the Appalachian Trail …”

Sanford’s eyes looked puffy and dark. He talked for a few moments about how he took trips in college to exotic places and found temporary jobs and how in this job he “desperately needs a break from the bubble.”

He he spent a few more minutes talking about his frustrations with the Legislature and the battle over stimulus money. He locked eyes with the nearest reporters.

“So all those things we talked about this morning were true, but they’re not the whole story, and that’s obviously why everybody’s gathered here right now. So let me lay out that larger story that has attracted so many of you all here. I’m a bottom-line kind of guy. I’ll lay it out. It’s gonna hurt, and we’ll let the chips fall where they may.”

Then more time passed as he apologized to Jenny and his sons and his staff, “because as much as I did talk about going to the Appalachian Trail, that was one of the original scenarios that I’d thrown out...” He apologized to state Senator Tom Davis, a former chief of staff he’d known since his days at Furman. Choking back tears, he recalled a “surreal” conversation a couple of weeks ago with his wife’s father about the affair. “He was incredibly gentlemanly as you cannot imagine. Here was the pain I was struggling with in regards to where my heart was and where I was in my life, and I let him down and a lot of people, and that’s the bottom line.” He apologized to the people of South Carolina. Reporters began to wonder what he was talking about.

“But I guess where I’m trying to go with this is there are moral absolutes and that God’s law indeed is there to protect you from yourself, and there are consequences if you breach that. This press conference is a consequence. And so the bottom line is this. I’ve been unfaithful to my wife. I have developed a relationship with a ... what started as a dear, dear friend from Argentina. It began very innocently as I suspect many of these things do in just a casual email back and forth in advice on one’s life there and advice here. But here recently over this last year it developed into something much more than that.”

When he was done talking, he took a few questions. One reporter asked if Sanford wanted to reconcile with his wife. Sanford answered that he had been trying to get his “heart right,” and that they were in different places in their lives. He said he has many hard decisions to make. “I am committed to that process of walking through with Jenny and the boys, the Tom Davises of the world and the people of South Carolina. I go back to that simple word of asking for forgiveness.” A reporter asked, had he had broken off the relationship with the woman in Argentina? The questions kept coming. Eighteen minutes passed. A reporter asked, “Will you resign?” That was the signal to end, and Sanford answered, “Thank you. All right,” and made his way from the podium. Reporters asked themselves and each other new questions. Where was Jenny? What would she say?

Schuyler Kropf and Robert Behre contributed to this report.