At some point, after Gov. Mark Sanford launched into his weepy press-conference apology and before I read his loving e-mail ode to his mistress's tan lines, I realized that I was in the presence of a media genius. I'm talking about Jenny Sanford, of course, who deftly transformed her public humiliation into a weapon—and beat her cheating husband about the head with it. While quoting Psalms! (Story continued below...)
In retrospect, her early comments on the governor's "disappearance" were brilliant. The first lady had known about her husband's affair for months and had given him the boot two weeks earlier. But when reporters were frantically asking, "Where is South Carolina's governor?" the mother of four boys fanned the mystery by telling the Associated Press that she hadn't heard from him in several days. Not even on Father's Day—a line Tina Brown likened to "a sharp, small kick in the groin."
Then, while Sanford's kooky mea culpa was still echoing in the rotunda of the South Carolina Statehouse, she released her own razor-sharp statement. She said she still loves her man and that she remains willing to forgive him and welcome him back. She quoted Psalm 127, that "sons are a gift from the Lord and children a reward from Him."
When I first heard it, I felt a stab of disappointment—yet another political wife scorned, somehow willing to put on a pastel suit and sob quietly in the background as her husband explains all the very good reasons why he had boinked a dear (tan) old friend, had an affair with a man, or spent good money on a tacky hooker. All of those wives have my sympathy: Suzanne Craig, wife of former senator Larry (wide stance) Craig. Dina McGreevey, former wife of former New Jersey governor Jim ("I am a gay American") McGreevey. Silda Wall Spitzer, wife of former New York governor Eliot (Client 9) Spitzer.
But there are a few wronged political wives who get my respect, as well. And I'm beginning to think Jenny Sanford is one of them. On second read, her statement is kind of perfect. It's loving. It's forgiving. It is pious. And she really kicks some butt, if you're willing to read between the lines. She reclaimed the high ground: she "put forth every possible effort to be the best wife during almost 20 years of marriage" (i.e., she did nothing to deserve this). She believes in the sanctity of marriage (he's a cheating bastard). She is ready to forgive completely (because she's a better person than he'll ever be) "as long as he continues to work toward reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance" (there will be hell to pay). She says she will continue to focus on raising her sons to be honorable young men (unlike their dirtbag father). She had kept the separation quiet, she said, to protect those four beautiful boys, and because of the separation, she really hadn't a clue about where her husband was.
It is completely possible that she didn't mean any of those things. But what wife (or former wife, in my case) can't imagine what she'd like to say if she found herself in Jenny Sanford's pumps? And I'm guessing she had an inkling that the luv guv wasn't hiking the Appalachian Trail. By letting him hang himself—and look really dopey while doing it—she somehow managed to come out of a god-awful mess with a little bit of dignity. She may even have become the latest member of an elite club no woman wants to join: Scorned political wives who turn victimhood to their own advantage.
Perhaps nobody has risen from the ashes of a political sex scandal quite the way Elizabeth Edwards did. It was a terrible, undeserved public humiliation when her husband, John Edwards, had an affair with a video producer. But then again, she managed to get a book contract and in that book, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts Facing Life's Adversities, she managed to trash the other woman. She also vented about her husband to Oprah—just as the scandal was beginning to die down. Hillary Clinton, who has been criticized for overlooking her husband's many bimbo eruptions, managed to pull herself together and ride a wave of sympathy into the U.S. Senate.
Even though these women stood by their men in a way I don't fully understand, I feel confident that those men paid a hefty price for their misdeeds. Perhaps it simply reflects that there is a new breed of political wife out there. Elizabeth Edwards and Hillary Clinton were both formidable women long before they were betrayed by famous husbands. Jenny Sanford was a vice president in mergers and acquisitions at investment banking firm Lazard Frères in New York. All of them managed to take lemons, make lemonade, and add a shot of vodka. I can't know what is going on in Jenny Sanford's mind, of course, or if she has been as calculating with the press as I think. But I do know that she's demonstrated a far savvier political instinct for self-preservation and political spin than her husband has.