05.15.11

Jenny Sanford's Warning for 2012 Presidential Wives

Jenny Sanford's narrative as a political wife may be extreme—she left her husband, South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, after an affair—but her day-to-day experiences were common. She tells Lois Romano what presidential candidates' wives can expect on the 2012 campaign trail: "It's relentless."

Long before her life imploded in a spectacle of headlines over her husband’s infidelity, Jenny Sanford “could not wait to get out of that job.”

She’s referring not just to Mark Sanford’s job as governor of South Carolina but to the burden she endured throughout his 15 years in public life. Nothing, she says, prepares you for the scrutiny.

“Everything you do is criticized—your clothes are ugly, you’re not doing enough, your politics are questioned. It gets mean,” she said in an interview. “You have to live a very guarded life.”

When she looks at the landscape for wives going into the 2012 presidential race, she doesn’t see anything changing—except the intensity. “Now it’s relentless. We live in a 24-hour new cycle. It’s a nasty proliferation of sensationalism.”

Sanford’s end as political spouse came not by choice. Mark Sanford went down in flames in 2009 when it became known that he was having an affair with an Argentinean woman. He decided to then share his love story with the world during one of the most bizarre press conferences in American political history, after which he famously asked his wife how he did.

“Everyone else wants a piece of you,” she says. “The demands are significant and they are endless.”

Jenny Sanford swiftly moved out of the governor’s mansion with her four sons; he managed to finish out the remaining 18 months of his term. While her narrative as a political wife is extreme, Jenny Sanford’s day-to-day experiences are commonplace.

She was recovering from the birth of her second son when her husband showed up at the hospital and stunned her with the news that he was running for Congress. “We had a 15-month-old and a newborn, and he says to me, ‘I’m going to run for Congress,’” she later recalled.

Sanford had already given up her successful career as a New York investment banker when she married, and public life just took one more piece of her. “You don’t have time to keep up with the friends you want to see because everyone else wants a piece of you,” she says. “The demands are significant and they are endless.”

Jenny Sanford had managed all her husband’s campaigns, but not always by choice. She took on his congressional races because it seemed like a natural thing to do at the time, but she tried to demur when he ran for statewide office. “I refused to do it for as long as I could. But he asked me, and we were frugal,” she says. “And I’m a good manager.”

Cindy McCain: ‘Spouses Get a Bad Rap’

Michelle Cottle: The State of the Political Spouse
Their model has some pluses—husband and wife got to spend a lot of time together during the campaigns—but she sees a distinct downside. “We had a good connection during those campaigns, but as a couple you never get away from it,” she says. “It follows you home at night.”

Sanford said she has happily returned to a low-key life as a mom, and that’s enough for her right now. “I remember when he was re-elected governor, a reporter asked my mother if she was happy. She said, ‘I think it’s just awful. I wouldn’t wish this life on a dog.’”

Lois Romano is a senior writer for Newsweek/Daily Beast based in Washington. She was a longtime political writer and columnist for The Washington Post, covering presidential campaigns and Washington powerbrokers.