Sanford's Sex Scandal: Assessing the Damage

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Davis Turner / Getty

South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford tearfully admitted to having an affair during a news conference in Columbia, S.C., on June 24, 2009

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When he lost that battle with the courts and legislature last week, Sanford, who can be as eccentric as he is thin-skinned, simply disappeared (although staffers insist they could reach him by cell phone in case of emergency). "I've spent the last five days of my life crying in Argentina," he said at the capitol in Columbia. "I'm committed to getting my heart right. I've been unfaithful to my wife. I've let down a lot of people. I apologize."

Sanford said he'll resign the RGA's chairmanship but refused to say whether he'll step down as governor. His friend and former chief of staff, state senator Tom Davis, says Sanford "shouldn't resign, even though I say that with reservations given what's happened the past few days. He deserves the chance to rebuild the trust of the state, and I think today's confession was a good start," Davis told TIME. "I think he's done an extraordinarily good job as governor of alerting people to issues that have been swept under the rug for far too long in South Carolina, like the need to reform the fiscally irresponsible structure of its government. He's shown the same conservative leadership that Barry Goldwater displayed in the 1960s, getting the Republican Party back to its roots."

Whatever happens, Sanford's bizarre tango — coming less than a week after another GOP presidential hopeful, Nevada Senator John Ensign, admitted having an extramarital affair with a staffer — is yet another scandalous blow to his party's family-values image. Democrats, as former President Clinton and more recently former North Carolina Senator John Edwards proved, are hardly immune to these disasters. But Sanford, a conservative Christian, has long portrayed himself as a model family man devoted to his wife of 20 years and their four sons. While he asked for his state's forgiveness, his hypocrisy and that of many other Republicans of late may exhaust the patience of Bible Belt voters. "A lot of Bible-steeped power brokers will still give him a pass," says John Jeter, a South Carolina writer whose new novel, The Plunder Room, examines Southern mores. "But American and especially Southern conservatism is going to have to find a new kind of face."

Critics like South Carolina state senator Hugh Leatherman, a Republican, say it's Sanford's professional infidelity that stands to short-circuit his national political ambitions. "People will forgive private sins," says Leatherman, "but not a governor lying to them like this. This is an issue of governance. He can complain all he wants about the political bubble, but a governor is on duty 24/7." Even Lieut. Governor Andre Bauer slammed Sanford for being MIA. Leatherman, like many South Carolina pols, is not yet calling for Sanford's resignation, but he says Sanford "can't be effective as a governor" from now until his second and final term ends next year.

Sanford said his wife Jenny, herself a savvy politico who was instrumental in her husband's rise from real estate broker to U.S. Representative to governor, had known of the affair for about five months. In her own statement on June 24, she said that while she had asked Sanford to leave two weeks ago — the reason she herself didn't know where he was the past week — the couple has agreed to a "trial separation with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage." But in a dig at Sanford, she added, "I will continue to pour my energy into raising our sons to be honorable young men."

Ironically, Sanford said he became involved with Maria, whom he met eight years ago while on a government trip to Argentina, while trying to help Maria work out her separation from her own husband. In one of her e-mails to Sanford, however, she insists, "You are my love." She adds, "Sometimes you don't choose things, they just happen." On a private level, Sanford, like any human being, can be excused for succumbing to that inconvenient rule of the heart. But in the public arena, the erratic behavior of the past week seems to confirm what detractors have argued for years — that his constituents also suffer from his self-indulgence.

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