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12.11.09

Run, Jenny, Run!

Now that Jenny Sanford is divorcing her fumbling husband, Kathleen Parker says she should take her class-act to elected office. Plus, the messiest political breakups.  

When we think of class—to the extent anyone does anymore—the mind doesn't wander long before bumping into the name Jenny Sanford, estranged and now-divorcing wife of the world’s most famous hiker, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

Mrs. Sanford, who moved out of the governor’s mansion in August following revelations that her husband had been seeing another woman in Argentina, now has filed for divorce.

Who could blame her? The self-inflicted humiliations of her husband can't have been easy to stomach, beginning with his tearful confession before a room full of television cameras, now forever preserved in the annals of YouTube infamy. Another TMI confession followed shortly thereafter, in which Sanford admitted "crossing lines" with other women during his 20-year marriage.

They say a class act is hard to follow, but that would not seem to be South Carolina or the Republican Party’s problem at the moment.

The final straw, at least from this bystander’s perspective, surely was the governor's statement that he was trying to fall in love with his wife again. Are you daft, Señor Gobernador? This amidst ramblings about his "soul mate" in Argentina and days spent crying in Buenos Aires over Father's Day Weekend.

Read our Big Fat Story: The Messiest Political Breakups Oy, hombre (and I use the term loosely). Enough already. Get thee to a therapist posthaste, and let the women get on with business.

Which brings one to this thought: Run, Jenny, Run! If not for governor... something? The Congress? The Grand Old Party could use a few more smart women. (We note with gratitude that Mrs. Sanford’s home features reading materials that include not only Ayn Rand, but also Gabriel García Márquez.)

Come to think of it, Atlas Shrugged and One Hundred Years of Solitude seem handy titles at a time like this: One a deserved unburdening, the other an appealing sentence for a certain offender.

Throughout the scandal that absorbed a curious state and bemused a nation, Jenny Sanford has displayed a rarely seen combination of qualities that make her well-suited for public office. She’s smart, serene, steely, and strong. Doubtless, there are other S’s we could draft into service, but let’s letter up. She’s tough, talented, and, when talking about her four boys, tender.

And, yes, she’s dead-attractive, as we say down South. A recent profile in Vogue magazine shows her standing at the open door of the family’s Sullivan’s Island cottage, just across Charleston Harbor, wearing a white tunic that reveals slender, athletic legs. Fresh-faced and slightly windswept, she looks more like an ad for Oil of Olay than the embarrassed wife of a wayward governor.

Most appealing to Jenny-watchers is the view she maintains from the high road, which includes forgiveness of the husband she intends to divorce, as well as the woman whose company he sought. Perhaps this is partly her Christian faith at work and the charitable view that people sometimes make mistakes through weakness, not badness. The alternative, anyway, is anger and bitterness, which Mrs. Sanford says she rejects.

Can’t we hire this woman?

Jenny Sanford, whom I’ve never met despite residing in the same tiny asylum, aka, South Carolina, is not, in fact, likely to run for governor. For one thing, she recently endorsed another woman for the office, Nikki Haley, a small-government, low-taxes businesswoman, who was also Gov. Sanford’s first choice to succeed him.

Says Nikki of Jenny in an email to me:

“Jenny has been a woman of incredible intelligence, strength, and grace. She has been a political force in the state for years and will continue to be as long as she chooses."

Even so, and most important, Mrs. Sanford is still raising her boys and has placed motherhood at the top of her significant résumé. Before marrying Sanford, the Georgetown University graduate was a vice president of a New York investment-banking firm. After marriage and two children, when Sanford decided to run for Congress and later governor, Jenny Sanford ran her husband’s successful campaigns from her kitchen.

She’s organized, in other words. A multitasker who, by her own admission, can make the trains run on time. She told Vogue that running a campaign is surprisingly similar to investment banking.

“In both of them, you work 24/7 until the deal either happens or it dies. You can always do more work. There’s always one more voter out there you can get to, one more email that needs to be answered.”

What Jenny Sanford isn’t, apparently, is passionate about the ideas that kept her husband always looking for, as she put it, “something else, something bigger.”

What she also lacks is the burning desire to be in the spotlight. Missing is the appetite to Be Somebody that seems to drive so many politicians to the next fish fry. Therein lies the irony of political leadership. The person who doesn’t need center stage is also the person least likely to succumb to hubris. Perhaps we should elect only people who don’t really want to lead, but who, like George Washington, reluctantly accept the call to service out of a sense of moral duty.

Jenny Sanford has plenty of time to make her next move, whatever it might be. At 47, she’s still young. And, thanks to her own family’s resources, she’s financially secure. Already, she has name recognition and has established a brand that says “quality.”

They say a class act is hard to follow, but that would not seem to be South Carolina or the Republican Party’s problem at the moment. Jenny Sanford is positioned to cause that problem for others, if only she would.

Kathleen Parker is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group and author of Save the Males.