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06.25.09

Sanford's Strange Side

Well before the South Carolina governor admitted his extramarital affair, there were signs the “thoughtful conservative” had a penchant for concealing potentially damaging and unusual incidents from his constituents.

Plus: Read more of The Daily Beast's coverage of Palin's resignation and the GOP implosion.

Few journalists have been closer to and more supportive of South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford than Warren Smith.

Smith, who writes for the evangelical Christian magazine World and has published a book this year criticizing some Christian conservatives for their part in “the cultural decline of the West,” A Lovers’ Quarrel with the Evangelical Church, has exchanged regular emails with Sanford. Sanford was a political “holy grail,” Smith told me—the ideal candidate to restore the Republican Party to national respectability. The governor was a “thoughtful conservative,” he said, who had united all factions of the Republican base behind him while avoiding the strident rhetoric that has driven moderates from party ranks in droves.

Sanford’s insurance company paid the girl’s family “around $300,000,” according to Dougherty, and the incident remained private.

Sanford’s official apology in 2003 to a mostly black audience for the Orangeburg Massacre, a 1968 incident in which local police killed three civil-rights activists protesting outside a segregated bowling alley, exemplified his “penchant for striking just the right chord,” Smith wrote.

At the same time, Sanford proudly broadcasted his devotion to the Christian right, taking strict positions against abortion and gay rights while pushing for the impeachment of President Bill Clinton and the resignation of former Rep. Bob Livingston for engaging in extramarital affairs. During his three terms in the House, Sanford belonged to “C Street,” an evangelical men’s “accountability group” funded by a secretive international group called the Fellowship. Senator John Ensign, who recently admitted to having an affair, was among the congressmen who lived in C Street’s $1.1 million Capitol Hill dormitory.

As governor, Sanford seemed especially at ease in interviews with conservative reporters like Smith, talking at length about the weighty moral responsibilities he had assumed as a Christian public servant.

“There is a hierarchy of different responsibilities, responsibilities in terms of personal faith, responsibility to my wife, the responsibility of the father, and then responsibilities to state and federal government. Superseding my role as governor is my role as a parent and my role as a father,” Sanford told Smith in 2003, explaining why he sent his children to private Christian schools.

Smith and a growing number of conservative insiders were excited about Sanford’s national prospects. “He would make a great president,” Smith wrote in a commentary for Charlotte World two years later. “I hope he runs, and I hope he wins.”

Since Sanford reemerged on June 24 from a mysterious five-day disappearance, telling a reporter, “I wanted to go somewhere exotic,” then confessing in a tearful nationally televised press conference to an affair with an Argentine friend named Maria, his presidential ambitions have been obliterated. Even his job as governor is in jeopardy.

“This is a real blow to thoughtful evangelicals and sort of classical conservatives who saw Sanford as a breath of fresh air,” Smith told me. “This is a disappointment to me and many of us in this camp. [Sanford] was such an admirable figure that this is a huge lost opportunity for him and millions of people thinking he had a real future.”

But well before Sanford admitted his extramarital tryst, there were signs he had a penchant for concealing potentially damaging and highly unusual incidents from the public.

In March, a reporter for the American Conservative, Michael Dougherty, traveled to South Carolina to write a profile on Sanford. He returned with a generally favorable piece portraying the governor as a principled conservative with maverick tendencies. Buried in Dougherty’s lengthy profile, however, was a story from Sanford’s past that local papers suppressed and the national media has ignored to this day.

During Sanford’s first run for governor in 2002, an 8-year-old African-American girl drowned while wandering across Sanford’s vacation property on Lady’s Island. Sanford’s insurance company paid the girl’s family “around $300,000,” according to Dougherty, and the incident remained private.

Sources gave Dougherty varying account of the girl’s death: One said she fell into a “pit” while another said she drowned in a “retaining pond.” Other sources offered the reporter odd background details: “Sanford,” they told Dougherty, “who owned a hydraulic excavator at the time, digs holes on his property to unwind.”

(A Sanford spokesperson called the drowning “a tragic accident,” but would not elaborate further).

With Sanford’s once-bright future dashed by another scandal, the full story of the drowning incident may never come to light. Back in Columbia, South Carolina, the statehouse is rumbling with talk of impeachment proceedings against the governor for committing “serious crimes or serious misconduct in office.”

With his fateful trip to Argentina, Sanford dug one hole too many.

Max Blumenthal is a senior writer for The Daily Beast and writing fellow at The Nation Institute, whose book, Republican Gomorrah (Basic/Nation Books), is forthcoming this summer. Contact him at maxblumenthal3000@yahoo.com.