The riddle of Jenny Sanford

Is the governor's wife rewriting the post-affair rules or returning to the traditional script? A round table


Salon Staff
June 25, 2009 11:26PM (UTC)

You will find no shortage opinions about Mark Sanford right now -- not to mention rumors about his Argentine lover. But what about his wife, Jenny Sanford? Her absence at yesterday's press conference was a welcome change for those tired of watching scorned political wives dragged into the media spotlight while the cameras rolled. But she was not silent, issuing a lengthy press release only a few short hours after the press conference wrapped. Is she reinventing the post-affair rules, or is she falling back to the traditional script? We asked Broadsheet contributors for their (sometimes contradictory) responses.

Lynn Harris: I was never one to be 100 percent outraged by the sight of a spurned political wife appearing oh-so-nobly at her dumbass husband's press conference. After all, one never really knows what is going on in a relationship, and hey, at this point we know Mrs. Dumbass has suffered enough; let's not start with the judgment pig-pile when it's he who screwed up. Also -- in so far as it's possible to create a taxonomy of trangressions -- people have forgiven partners far worse. What can we say? Still, I am glad that Mrs. Sanford has demonstrated that there's not just one way to respond, one expectation of one kind of post-"Argentina" etiquette. So I can freely say "good for her" without saying "bad" for those who stood uncomfortably before her. Not that this was her responsibility, but she (and Mrs. Ensign) have freed things up for those who will — no doubt -— follow them. What's left to wonder is this: What will happen when, inevitably, the "stoic wife" is the husband?

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Rebecca Traister: Frankly, this has the ring of something that was ... well, wrung from her. Who knows? Maybe she means every word. But this is a woman who has exploded the image of the ever-faithful political wife, first by alerting the press to the fact that she didn't know where her husband was (an media-alert whistle if ever one was blown) and then by not showing up at his side for his weepy conference.

And then, conveniently enough, we get a pat explanation for why it makes perfect sense that she had no idea where the father of her sons was for a period of days. See, what happened was, she had asked to be left in the dark. So in a way, it was kind of her fault that he hadn't bothered to inform her! Never mind that he also didn't inform anyone in his office that he was out of the country in case one of his sons had any sort of emergency, or needed his father, or anything like that. All of that was because Jenny had asked for his radio silence. (Maybe the state of South Carolina had also requested a trial separation and asked Governor Sanford not to contact it for two weeks?)

Which is, in turn, why it made perfect sense, after years of managing her husband's campaigns and the media that went with them, that she thought that the best way to maintain the family privacy was to let the press know that she had no idea where her husband was. She did that because she thought that throwing reporters a giant juicy steak of a missing-Governor mystery would be the quickest route to getting them to respect her privacy while she sought the wisdom of Solomon, the strength and patience of Job, and the grace of God in ending her cheating, secretive husband's path to the presidency.

See how it all makes perfect sense? Or no sense at all, really. None of what she says here, except about her faith and her pride in her children, all of which I'm sure is genuine, bears much relationship to what actually happened with regard to her choices with the press or his choices about going to Argentina. This feels like a post facto attempt to patch over Jenny Sanford's understandable unwillingness to play along with her husband's bizarre disappearing act.

It seemed for a moment yesterday that Jenny Sanford would be the first cuckolded political wife in recent memory who elected to break the cycle of standing by her husband's side. I wonder if she has any idea how many women out there of different political and religious and ideological persuasions cheered that decision lustily. Not because they feel that infidelity is unforgivable in all circumstances, not because Sanford's personal errors here (not including the political failure of going on an intercontinental date that left his state without an executive for five days) are outside the realm of imagined human behavior. But simply because she did not easily submit to what has lately become tortured political tradition: the red-eyed walk of public support.

This statement makes me think that someone took Jenny Sanford to the Hillary-Dina-Silda School for Spousal Conduct and rapped her knuckles.

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Amanda Fortini: When I first read Jenny Sanford’s statement, I thought, "How strange, to issue a press release reacting to your husband’s affair." This was not, despite her insistence that she remained “willing to forgive Mark completely,” an uncomplicated example of standing by your man (as she quite literally did not do during his press conference). Not for her the silent Silda Spitzer act, nor a simple request to respect her privacy and that of her boys. I immediately began to wonder whether this was her idea, or that of his undoubtedly bewildered staffers, who wanted the media to know that his own wife wasn’t informed of his whereabouts either. But this is a tough woman -- she worked on Wall Street, as a vice president of mergers and acquisitions for six years, and as her husband’s political advisor for 15 -- and I’m inclined to believe the former. The statement seems to me a self-defense, an assertion of dignity, a declaration of pride. This is a woman, to use contemporary therapeutic parlance, with a strong sense of self. (After all, in a mere seven paragraphs -- and still, seven paragraphs! -- we learn about that job on Wall Street, her philanthropic work and that she was an active First Lady.) Jenny Sanford wants us to know that she didn’t know where her husband was last weekend because she had already kicked him out. Two. Weeks. Ago. OK? Given that her husband was caught not in a sexual dalliance but an actual love affair, writing mash notes that cooed over another woman’s “gentle kisses,” “tan lines,” and “two magnificent parts,” can you really blame her?

Amy Benfer: I couldn't help but notice throughout this week how much emphasis Jenny Sanford put on their children. First, when informed that he's missing, she says he needed some time away from the kids -- over Father's Day weekend! Then she says that her "deepest regret" about her husband's infidelity is the "potential damage to our children." I certainly believe her: Many, many, many is the wronged spouse who has endured all matter of insults in a marriage for the sake of one's children. But including it in her public statement seemed to be a not particularly subtle invitation to others to tick off another, greater sin on her husband's roster -- not only is he philandering husband, he's a terrible father! Leaving the state you happen to govern, your country, and, oh, your sons with no emergency contact information isn't going to score you any father of the year awards. But perhaps with the wisdom of Solomon, the strength and patience of Job, and the grace of God, Mark Sanford will come to figure reconcile his place as a father, a husband, a lover, and a human being.

Tracy Clark-Flory: I'm one of those many women who cheered during yesterday's press conference: Yes, finally, a wife who refuses to accompany her husband on his walk of shame! So, yes, it's disappointing to hear her say that the governor has earned another chance at reviving their marriage after jetting to Argentina for a lovers' holiday. But, judging from the contradictory messages we've been getting from Mrs. Sanford in recent days, something tells me that there is a lot going on here beneath the surface that we can't see or understand. Here's hoping she is able to maintain her "dignity" and "self-respect," whatever that means for her in whatever mysterious situation she's currently in.

Mary Elizabeth Williams: The contrast between the rhetoric of Jenny Sanford's statement and the debacle of her husband's actions calls to mind the sad maxim about "two dreams in one bed." Hers is a declaration of "effort," "dignity," "self-respect," "committment," "will," "work " and "struggle." One can only imagine the pain behind the words, knowing that her request for a separation "with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage" was his cue to hightail it south of the border. Mrs. Sanford states she's "willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back" and, based on the strength of her Christian convictions and belief in the instutition of marriage, she's probably got a better than average shot. But while forgiveness is an admirable goal, I can't help remembering her husband's ardent worship of his mistress's curves and tan lines, and wondering what would happen if good old Jenny Sanford just moved on, the better to be similarly adored.

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