09.07.09

Sanford's 'Secret-Agent Mission'

In an exclusive interview, South Carolina’s embattled governor talks to The Daily Beast about his life’s calling, the end of his political career, and why he’s no Bill Clinton.

In an exclusive interview, South Carolina's embattled governor, Mark Sanford, talks to The Daily Beast about his strategy for political survival, how his fall from grace disarms his opponents, why he's no Bill Clinton—and the temptation to "go hide under a rock."

Last week, Mark Sanford, South Carolina’s beleaguered governor, sat down to lunch. A waitress walked up, and offered him comfort—a scene that, given his troubles, has been recurring with surprising frequency these days. “Look, I’m a longtime Democrat,” she said. “I don’t really follow all this stuff that closely, but what’s going on right now is wrong.” She gave him a hug, Sanford recalls, and told him to “keep pushing.”

He knows he’ll need to push fast. Sanford was regarded as among the Republican Party’s better hopes for the White House in 2012 when, following a mysterious absence, he was forced to confess that he’d left the country to cheat on his wife and longtime political adviser, Jenny, with an Argentine journalist. Since then, he’s become the source of constant unflattering headlines, a staple on the late-night shows—and the subject of investigations and impeachment rumors in the state capital of Columbia. Lucky for the governor, the legislature doesn’t reconvene until January. Barring a special session, Sanford has four months to save his job.

“You know,” the exhausted South Carolina governor says, “everybody is assigned their own secret-agent mission in life. And at times the tricky part, the hard part, is finding out what that is."

“A lot of [South Carolina politicians] are saying, ‘Hey, it’s payback time, we got you now,” says Sanford, who granted me a phone interview last week. “And you know, I gave them the bullets, the guns, the noose, and the rope and all that stuff … You could have all the rational arguments in the world but you ain’t gonna change David Thomas’ mind,” Sanford says, referring to the Republican state legislator who is investigating whether the governor improperly used state money to fund his travels (Sanford says he has complied with state law and the precedents of others in office). “So I’m going to speak to anybody in the General Assembly that I can, and of even greater note, I’m gonna be speaking to regular working South Carolinians when I get the chance.”

Sanford has been a loner his entire political life; it was not at all out of character when he sought to turn back the Obama administration’s offer of federal stimulus money for his state—a fight he lost with the state General Assembly. Saving his scalp—with the legislature as well as the rank-and-file voters—will require him to do something he’s never been comfortable doing: slap backs, trade stories, and get on with the good ole boys.

It won’t be easy. He knows his brand of extreme fiscal conservatism is suddenly very much in fashion, as the Obama administration runs up the deficit. And he knows he’s shot himself in the foot, big time. “I’m a wounded soldier; I took myself off the battlefield,” he says. “It’s not until you lose something in life that you appreciate some of your blessings. If I ever had the chance to get back on the playing field, it would be a great honor and a privilege and a blessing.”

“You know,” the South Carolina governor continues, “everybody is assigned their own secret-agent mission in life. And at times the tricky part, the hard part, is finding out what that secret-agent mission is. Some of us do it early, some of us do it later in life.” Simply put, nobody else in the Palmetto State’s political class talks like that.

It’s tempting, Sanford admits, to go “hide under a rock, go down to the farm and never see another television camera again.” That temptation must have only grown last week, when Lieutenant Governor Andre Bauer wrote a letter calling for Sanford’s resignation and offered to take over the job. But, as Sanford puts it, “you gotta stay around for the second half of the show.”

So what will that look like? What’s Sanford’s survival strategy?

For starters, he’s taking ambition off the table. The governor believes that all the talk of his possible White House aspirations has only empowered his enemies. It might seem self-evident, under the circumstances, but any talk of higher office is over.

“During the last six and a half years—some of the biggest detractors now were the same detractors then—they would say ‘Well this guy’s running for president, we can’t give him this restructuring victory because that would be a feather in his cap,’” Sanford says of his earlier attempts to retool state government. His wounded state, the governor says, clears the way for a politics-free focus on substance. “Boy, if there is ever a chance to have a debate about the issue on the issue itself, now is that time, because clearly, obviously, I’m not running for another office, that is now a forgone conclusion. Everybody gets that. For the first time, it can be not about ‘What is Mark’s next political move?’ or ‘Is he talking about stimulus because he is really running for president?’”

Sanford also hopes to win some credit with voters for his candor. He’s well aware that some will see him as a hypocrite—the man who was so harshly critical of President Bill Clinton over his affair getting caught in a similar situation. But unlike the president, Sanford says, he immediately came clean, and asked forgiveness. “In my case, when I saw my number was up, I laid it out on the table in agonizing and excruciating detail,” he says. “I think I told more in terms of laying it out than anybody in South Carolina wanted to know.”

And finally, he talks of faith—in sometimes subtle ways, but ways that may resonate with conservative elements of the South Carolina electorate. “It has been an incredible experience for me in the larger notion of grace and compassion and even judgment,” says Sanford, an Episcopalian who has regularly attended Bible study group in the months before news of his infidelity broke. Through the storms, he says, he’s learned new lessons about friendship and forgiveness. “I don’t spend a lot of time looking backward … I can’t redo my life or history. I will simply say that from this point going forward the focus of my life is certainly not going to be worrying about judging others.”

Then there’s the matter of his wife. Sanford declined to speak about his relationship, but the two are said to still be attempting to work things out. (As Jenny Sanford told Vogue magazine recently, “I think it’s up to my husband to do the soul-searching and see if he wants to stay married. The ball is in his court.”) Nor does the governor intend to delve more deeply into the particulars with voters than he already has. But then again, he might not be able to help himself.

As he enters what may well be the home stretch of his political career, Sanford sounds weary, but determined to push on through.

“I’m going to keep doing the business that the people of South Carolina really care about,” Sanford says. “I can’t tell you how many people come up to me and say ‘this has got to be a three-ring circus; this has got to be a witch hunt. This is about David Thomas trying to run for Congress, and thinking he can build his name by having these 'investigations' that are little about investigation and a whole lot about making papers … What we are going to continue to try to do is, one, get back to business. At the end of the day, the subtleties of my relationship with Jenny are not going to impact one way or another somebody who lives in Sumter who is struggling to make it.”

Will Cathcart is the managing editor of the Charleston Mercury newspaper in Charleston, South Carolina.