Published June 26, 2009
Jenny Sanford did not stand by her man.
To those accustomed to watching betrayed first ladies smile stiffly through their husbands' public confessions, the absence of Gov. Mark Sanford's wife at the soul-baring news conference where he admitted to an affair with a woman in Argentina was striking.
Instead, she issued a tough-minded statement saying she had thrown her cheating husband out and told him to stop speaking to her while she tries to deal with his infidelity.
That came as no surprise to those who know this independently wealthy, Georgetown-educated, former Wall Street executive. Around South Carolina, Jenny Sanford is regarded as a strong-minded figure, accomplished and politically astute.
Jenny Sanford doesn't have it in her to play the "namby-pamby Tammy Wynette," said Donald Aiesi, a political scientist at Furman University in Greenville, the governor's alma mater.
"She has very strong faith, very strong family values," said Marjory Wentworth, a family friend who was appointed South Carolina's poet laureate by the governor in 2003. "There's no gray area about the things that matter to her."
Many of Jenny Sanford's counterparts have stood beside or behind their spouses for similar moments of scandal: When New Jersey Gov. Jim McGreevey outed himself as gay. When former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer acknowledged he was the client of a call-girl ring. When Idaho Sen. Larry Craig denied trying to elicit sex in an airport men's room.
Some of these political wives were bitterly criticized for subjecting themselves to such humiliation, as was Hillary Clinton, who stood by her husband -- figuratively, if not literally -- during some of the most fraught moments of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
Kendra Stewart, a political science professor at the College of Charleston, said Jenny Sanford was wise not to appear at her husband's side.
"The women receive a lot of criticism and even mocking on `Saturday Night Live' skits, criticism from woman's groups and other folks," she said. "People doing a lot of speculation about their expressions, what they were thinking. And by not being present, she removes all of that speculation."
As for whether Jenny Sanford's absence hurt her husband, Stewart said: "I'm not really sure any more damage could be done." In fact, the political scientist suggested that the 49-year-old governor might have helped himself somewhat by taking his lumps by himself, and not making his wife stand there the way other politicians in peril have done.
"In a way, I think the husbands took even more flak for their actions," Stewart said, "because everyone had to watch their wives humiliated while they apologized."
The governor's spokesman, Joel Sawyer, said he did not know if Sanford asked his wife to be at his side.
During the painfully frank news conference, the governor said the first lady had known about the affair for five months. In her own statement, Jenny Sanford said: "We reached a point where 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. This trial separation was agreed to with the goal of ultimately strengthening our marriage."
Unlike other political wives, "she is laying down conditions at the outset and being very specific and emphatic that he's got to toe the line," Aiesi said. "The other wives sort of stood there like submissive somehow. She didn't take that approach. She said, `I love him. I want him back. But it depends on him.' She's holding the cards."
On Thursday, Jenny Sanford spent part of the day with her husband at their coastal home. Later, she left with some children in her car for what she said was dinner and a boat ride. Asked if she would be staying with her husband, she said: "It's a goal."
"I'm going to do my best to work on my marriage," she said. As for her husband's political future: "His career is not a concern of mine. He'll have to worry about that. I'm going to worry about my family and the character of my children."
Born Jennifer Sullivan, the first lady grew up near Chicago. Her grandfather founded the Skil Corp., a power tool manufacturer. She graduated from Georgetown University in 1984 with a degree in finance, then worked for the Wall Street investment banking firm Lazard Freres & Co., where she was a vice president in mergers and acquisitions. Mark Sanford was also working on Wall Street.
The couple have four school-age sons.
Jenny Sanford, a millionaire, helped launch her husband's political career nearly 15 years ago, running his campaigns for Congress and governor and putting up with campaign workers living in the basement of their Sullivans Island home.
Though she has stayed largely in the background, it is common knowledge that she was her husband's chief adviser. She has been a regular at his morning meetings with his top aides.
Close friends know her as a warm, bubbly person with an infectious smile. But in political circles, she is seen as a formidable figure, not to be crossed.
"She's a highly organized, corporate-type person," said former state Rep. John Graham Altman, a Republican. "I think Jenny's very calm, very controlled. She's extremely gifted and talented. ... It's clear she was the governor of the governor."
Her more public efforts included overseeing the restoration of a home on the mansion's grounds and promoting healthier living for South Carolinians.
"She has a very good strong political mind and has always been the mastermind behind Mark's campaign, but at the same time she does have a very tender side to her, particularly as it relates to her children," said Mike Campbell, an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor in 2006.
"Some people are not quite sure how to take her, that she's really tough, sometimes even cold. But I've always found her to be very personable and gotten along well with her."