Mark Sanford's Strange Relationship to Politics

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:40 p.m. Wednesday afternoon.

There are few ironclad laws in politics. But you should always take the idea of a "different kind of politician" with a boulder of salt.

Exhibit A: South Carolina governor—and rumored 2012 Republican presidential hopeful—Mark Sanford, whose strange six-day disappearing act sent his entire state into a tizzy and quickly became, thanks to a political press corps desperate for at least one non-Obama story to hype, his rather inauspicious introduction to most of the national electorate.

And that was before the real bomb dropped. (Story continued below...)

The timeline of Sanford's walkabout has the dramatic arc of a John Grisham novel. Last Thursday, the governor left his mansion in a black GMC Suburban assigned to his security detail; soon, a mobile tower near Atlanta's Hartsfield airport picked up a signal from his cell. Then he fell off the radar. Over the weekend, law-enforcement officials tried to call and text the governor, but received no response. By Monday, rival South Carolina Republicans—after a failed battle to refuse $700 million in federal stimulus funds, Sanford is almost as unpopular with the state GOP as local Dems—were issuing statements decrying his behavior and asking who was running the show in Columbia. Amid fears of foul play, Sanford's wife, Jenny, assured the AP that he was taking time away from their four boys—on Father's Day weekend, no less—"to write something," even as she admitted that she didn't know his exact coordinates. The governor's office, meanwhile, initially refused "to discuss specifics," then bowed to pressure and revealed that Sanford was "recharge[ing] after the stimulus battle" with a hike along the Appalachian Trail. The only problem? His flacks were wrong. When the governor finally arrived back in Atlanta this morning, he informed a waiting South Carolina reporter that he'd actually been vacationing in Buenos Aires. "It's a great city," he said. "I don't know how this thing got blown out of proportion." The wags in Washington quickly pronounced the bemused governor DOA, claiming, as Politico put it, "that this episode pushes him over the line between eccentricity and flat-out bizarre behavior" and dashes his 2012 chances.

They'd soon find out how right they were. In a press conference held in the South Carolina statehouse at 2:30 this afternoon, Sanford confessed that he had, in fact, "been unfaithful to [his] wife." "God's law indeed is there to protect you from yourself, and there are consequences if you breach that," Sanford said. "I've developed a relationship with what started out as a dear, dear friend from Argentina."

Before watching the presser, I was ready to believe—stupidly, it now seems—that Sanford had actually dashed off to South America for a breather (in winter!). Why? Because that sort of unvarnished independence was the foundation of his appeal, regardless of whether you agreed with his budget-hawk policies. Back in April, I spent a few days with Sanford for an extensive NEWSWEEK profile. He struck me then as unusually raw for an elected official—as if he were missing at least one layer of the plastic most pols encase themselves in—and as a result fundamentally ill-suited, despite his unsullied electoral winning streak, to high-level political life. But there was something genuine about his earnestness.

At the time, Sanford was threatening, much to the chagrin of his own party, to reject up to 25 percent (or $700 million) of South Carolina's share of federal stimulus funds unless the legislature set aside a matching sum of state money to pay down its debt—at a time when the state had the second-highest unemployment rate in the country. The debate had sent his approval ratings down into the dismal 30s. When I asked near the end of our first interview how the criticism made him feel—an Oprah-esque softball if there ever was one--Sanford started talking about a black security guard who'd recently told him to "do what you think is right." Then he stopped. His eyes were red and wet. Looking up at the ceiling, he let out a quick, pained laugh. "I'm gonna lose it here," he said, turning toward his press secretary. "Got to get my head back in the game." I was amazed to see a single tear running down his right cheek. Later, we attended a Rotary meeting that was meant, I think, to show me, the reporter from NEWSWEEK, that Sanford still had allies. But even the Rotarians had turned against him. "I'm a little lost on the mathematics," said one. "Aren't we cutting off our noses to spite our face?" Afterward, Sanford rushed over and tried to convince me that he prefers "environments we don't control" to "fake, canned events," even if they happen to be "left-leaning"--his implausible label for the day's event, given the group's conservative bent. He was clearly peeved that his plan had backfired. On the long ride back to Columbia, Sanford occasionally tried to make small talk, but it wasn't really clicking. Told that my fiancée writes for a children's cartoon show about birds, for example, he could only manage to ask whether she "likes nature." Questions about transportation and religion were met with glazed responses. It wasn't until Sanford starting reminiscing about his childhood summers on a bucolic farm near Beaufort—my "Huck Finn adventures, cruising along the lakes at night"—that he finally lit up.

My point is that the Sanford I knew, however superficially, actually seemed like a different kind of pol. He cried in front of a reporter. He protested too much. He couldn't make basic chit-chat. He'd rather talk about riding a raft as a kid than his latest policy proposal. And he clung, despite the homogenizing influences of our political process, to a stubborn, impractical libertarianism. For years, this refusal to compromise, this individuality, had served him well politically; Sanford slept on his couch in Washington, got trims at Supercuts (with coupons!), railed against spending and won each of his six election contests. When we met, his fortunes were flagging; in the real world, refusing $700 million meant for teachers and cops has a dire effect on your poll numbers. But Sanford, however misguided you may have considered him, still seemed like someone worthy of that rarest of political commodities: respect.

Not anymore. In today's press conference, I saw flashes of the same old Sanford. The tears. The almost uncomfortable earnestness. The unpolished offer to "give you more detail than you'll ever want on this." (I could almost hear his staffers tearing their hair out.) But rather than a different kind of politician, he had become just another in the seemingly endless string of callous, power-drunk officials who betray their families for sex: John Ensign, Eliot Spitzer, Mark Foley, Jim McGreevey, Bill Clinton—the list is too tedious to repeat.

It's clear now that Sanford has no shot at the presidency. But I can't help wondering whether he ever really wanted the job in the first place. When I asked the governor last spring if he was looking forward to returning to business after his term expired, he responded before I could even finish my sentence. "I am," he said. "Absolutely. Yes." There was a pause as Sanford waited for me to pose the obvious follow-up. And then he just started blabbering. "I mean, people always say, 'Are you going to run for president?' and all that stuff. And the truth is, it's sort of this double-jeopardy question, 'cause I always say the same thing: 'I don't know. It's not my intention at this point.' Which is absolutely accurate. And they say, 'Would you positively, absolutely rule it out?' And I say, 'Well, no.' 'Well that means you're contemplating it.' And I say, 'No, well, it's not my aim. It's not where I'm focused.' I just learned long ago in life that the day you got's the day you got. Doors will open and doors will close."

At the time, I interpreted Sanford's outburst as a sign that he was eager to throw his hat into the ring. But now I see it as something else: the wavering of an ambitious man whose political side is flattered by all the attention but who knows, in his heart, that it would never work. Until today, I thought Sanford was too "different" to make it through that door. Turns out he was just more of the same.