The ladies in Mark Sanford's life

The governor's wife Jenny is being praised as a hero. Will that make his lover Maria Belen Chapur the villain?

Published June 29, 2009 1:30PM (EDT)

For a while, it looked like Michael Jackson's death Thursday had put an end to the media frenzy surrounding South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford. But now that the obituaries and think pieces have run and international tributes to Jackson have been exhaustively cataloged, Sanford's name is back in the news. And while the first wave of coverage focused on the governor's own bizarre behavior and curiously literary love letters, news outlets have begun to take a greater interest in the women involved, Sanford's wife, Jenny, and his lover, Maria Belen Chapur.

As last week's Broadsheet round table illustrated, Jenny Sanford's response to her husband's affair has raised more questions than it has answered. What did it mean that she issued a press release but declined to appear with the governor at his press conference? A piece in Monday's Washington Post provides more insight into Jenny's character. Although she's known as a South Carolina homemaker and devout Christian, Jenny began her career as a magna cum laude Georgetown graduate and climbed the Wall Street ranks to become vice president at Lazard Freres & Co. And while many have questioned her emphasis on her children -- to the seeming exclusion of her personal feelings -- her response to a question about the governor's political future is nonetheless refreshing: "His career is not a concern of mine," she said. "He's going to have to worry about that. I'm worried about my family and the character of my children." That's a nice break from the automatic career damage control mode we saw from Hillary Clinton and Silda Wall Spitzer.

The Post article emphasizes the extent to which South Carolina residents are identifying with Jenny Sanford, whom most see as a "survivor," rather than an Elizabeth Edwards-style "victim." "This is the place where the betrayed wife took her stand," begins the article, referring to the beachfront town of Sullivan's Island, S.C., where Jenny and her children are staying at the family's vacation home. "I think every woman in South Carolina would vote for Jenny Sanford for governor right now," a friend of the couple's told the newspaper. The Post quotes members of the Sanfords' circle and residents of Sullivan's Island, who rhapsodize over the power of Jenny's press release, in which she wrote, "I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect, and my basic sense of right and wrong. I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago." 

Meanwhile, Maria Belen Chapur has confirmed to an Argentine news network that she is the woman the governor was visiting. "I have decided to send this statement to clear up certain incorrect things that are being reported and put an end to a matter that, as you imagine, is very painful to me, my two children, my entire family and close friends," wrote the 41-year-old former TV reporter and divorced mother. Chapur also told the press that an unknown "hacker" had accessed her Hotmail account in late 2008 and leaked the e-mails between her and Sanford. The media is already going wild over Chapur, with some sites breathlessly posting a few blurry screen caps of Chapur from her newscaster days.

Of course, if Jenny Sanford is going to be the hero of this story, then many will insist on making Chapur the villain. The Nation quotes a series of inflammatory comments on local South Carolina newspaper Web sites: "Like most married men, he got caught involved with a woman of ways who seduced him," writes one commenter. Another insists on calling Chapur a cougar, despite the fact that she is eight years Sanford's junior. By far the most jaw-droppingly insane statement appeared in the comments section of the State: "I can't help but wonder how much information this lady might have been able to obtain from Sanford during their affair. Furthermore, with all the terrorists threats around the world, I hope someone is extensively investigating this woman's background." That's right, folks: If you're an Argentine woman having an affair with an American governor, chances are you're a terrorist. Kind of makes me long for the classic, misogynist accusations -- "whore," "homewrecker," etc.

By Judy Berman

Judy Berman is a writer and editor in Brooklyn. She is a regular contributor to Salon's Broadsheet.

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