Mark Sanford's ex-wife: He asked me to manage his new campaign for Congress

When I saw this detail in yesterday’s LAT piece, I had to read it three times before feeling confident enough to post it as a Headline item. I was sure I had misunderstood and that the “she” referred to was someone else. This guy may be a shameless careerist, but asking the spouse you wronged to help get you back into Congress while you’re planning a wedding with the woman you left her for would take things to a Charlie-Crist-ian level of soulless ambition. “House of Cards” would reject it as a plotline on grounds that not even Frank Underwood would sink so low. (Well … no, he would. And Claire, unlike Jenny Sanford, would accept. And then she’d have a fleeting moment of humanity with a waitress or a homeless woman before shoving it out of her mind to concentrate on plotting to destroy people.)

New York magazine says it’s true:

When he first ran for Congress in 1994, he installed Jenny as his campaign manager. He did this for reasons of economy—“You’re free,” he told her at the time—but she proved a natural at the job. She blossomed into a shrewd political strategist, running Mark’s subsequent campaigns and becoming his top adviser. Will Folks, a former Sanford press secretary, says, “There’s absolutely no way he would have ever won the congressional seat or been governor without her.”

According to Jenny, she had already told Mark she would be taking a pass on the race the day before, at the funeral of a mutual friend. So when Mark came to visit her, he arrived with a proposal. “Since you’re not running, I want to know if you’ll run my campaign,” he said. “We could put the team back together.”

Jenny told him, in so many words, that wasn’t going to happen. Mark made one last appeal.

“I could pay you this time,” he said.

Later in the piece:

Although Mark explicitly sought and received all four of the boys’ permission—“I told them if they didn’t want me to do it, I wouldn’t do it,” he says—Jenny believes he’s put them in an impossible position. “Of course the boys would like to see their dad succeed at something he loves after all that’s gone on,” she told me. “Having said that, what mother in her right mind would ever want to watch her children see all of their father’s trash rehashed again?” Now that Mark is running, Jenny finds herself similarly boxed in. “She’s furious at him for doing this and she doesn’t want him to win, but he’s still the father of her children,” one of her friends says. “Does she want her sons to always think of her as the person who prevented their dad from getting back on his feet?”

Hard to be sure but it looks like both New York mag and the LAT found out about Mark’s job offer to her through Jenny herself or her inner circle, which I guess is her way of making life difficult for him without making it too difficult. Naturally, she doesn’t want to put her kids through hell by watching mom campaign publicly against dad. On the other hand, she knows how the public will react to hearing about the campaign offer. She’s not taking a side, just offering voters an extra little data point to inform their decision. Two powerful South Carolinians, Jeff Duncan and Mick Mulvaney, have already endorsed one of Sanford’s opponents in the congressional special election. We’ll see if this shakes a few more loose.

Here’s the craziest thing about this, though, which New York picks up on: I think Sanford’s shamelessness is due less to reptilian calculation, a la Crist, than to a sort of startling obliviousness that’s unusual for a successful politician. One of the striking things about his meltdown in 2009 was how authentic it seemed. It was the opposite of damage control. Instead of issuing some pat statement about how he’d sinned and would no longer answer questions out of respect for his family’s privacy, he ended up blubbering to reporters about how his affair was actually “a love story.” I don’t think he fully realized how that looked and sounded, especially to his wife; his introspection actually contributed to the obliviousness. By the same token, I can sort of believe that he approached Jenny Sanford with the offer to manage his campaign without grasping how insulting it might be to her and how callous it might make him look to outsiders. If he had grasped it, he’d never have asked her: The downside risk of it being exposed and damaging him was greater than the upside chance of her saying yes, since he really doesn’t need her to win this seat. He can likely win it through name recognition alone. All he has to do is stay on her good side and not antagonize her into campaigning against him, but by approaching her with the offer, he probably made that slightly more likely than less. In the end, he’s more Peter Russo than Frank Underwood.