The idea that Jenny Sanford wrote her memoir Staying True to mollify her sons, as she told the New York Times, is quite comical if you’ve actually read the book. There is no child who needs to know precisely when and how his father lied to his mother about the mistress in Argentina and how she watched him disintegrate into a pleading, heartsick fool. Sanford’s tone is studiously not vengeful, and yet this book is an act of revenge. As well it should be, since the poor woman was married to the most doltish specimen of a husband this side of John Edwards—a fact she elaborates on in exquisite detail for future generations of Sanford men to chew on.
When she wrote the book, Sanford must have been thinking about her husband pining for the other woman at his infamous press conference, since she erases any possibility that anyone think of him as an expansive, indulgent romantic. The most memorable parts of the book are the ones in which she details his habits as an extreme cheapskate who could not possibly conduct a whirlwind romance because it would be too expensive. Many of her stories have already been recounted with disbelief—the one about the elaborate lead-up to the used $25 bicycle he bought her and his insistence that she serve as his campaign manager not because he wanted her around for the adventure but because, as he told her, “You’re free.”
More in that vein: For his wife’s birthday, Mark Sanford had a friend pick out a diamond necklace and a staffer hide it in the closet, and then faxed her clues for the scavenger hunt—”clever and boyishly sweet,” she recalls. She found the necklace, and “I loved it!” she writes. But then he came home, saw it on her and said, “That is what I spent all the money on? I hope you kept the box,” and he returned it the next day. Another time, he insisted the whole family join him in India for a work trip. (All four boys were under the age of 8.). Without telling her, he rented their house out while they were supposed to be away to make some extra money. Only, he got the dates wrong, so she and the boys had to stay at a hotel.
What puts Sanford in a cad class of his own, however, is his complete misunderstanding of the companionate marriage. He treats his wife as a fishing buddy to whom he can confess absolutely everything rather than someone whose feelings he ever has to protect with some minor omissions. “With the exception of that little man, I’m bored with life,” he tells her after the birth of their first son, not bothering to explain how the wife fits into the boredom equation. Time and again he consults with Jenny about what he should do about Miss Argentina, soliciting both PR and relationship advice. “How’d I do?” he asked Jenny, after the press conference in which he pined for his “dear friend” in Argentina with whom “from a heart level, there was something real.” Later, Jenny tried to convince him to give their marriage another year because if it didn’t work out, the lady in Argentina probably wasn’t going anywhere.
“What if she does?” he answered. “Do you want to wake up when you are eighty and know you never had a heart connection?”
Can you imagine? Even Bill Clinton would know better than to run his options by Hillary: “Hey, Hill, I know Monica’s pretty young. But I’m not getting any younger, and what if this is my last chance?”
All of this raises the obvious question: What was Jenny thinking? Why would a smart woman like her stay with this jerk for all those years (or even marry him in the first place, since there were early clues)? After the debacle of a press conference, some women writers voted for Jenny as a suitable feminist heroine or, at least, a new role model for the wronged political wife. Finally, argued Ruth Marcus, we had a wife who neither stood by her husband’s side at the podium (Silda Spitzer) nor issued a bland supportive statement about a “stronger marriage” (Gayle Haggard). This was a woman who met the public straight on because she had concluded, rightly, that his affair was more humiliating to him than it was to her. It’s an inspiring image. But this new book complicates the picture.
For one thing, Jenny is constantly explaining away her husband’s behavior. The $25 bicycle was OK because “this was just part of who he was” and skipping out of Lamaze class was fine because” many fathers didn’t attend birth in those days”—the 1990s. Even the diamond story gets a pass because “once I knew he had overspent, I also knew it would pain him to see me wear the necklace had I insisted on keeping it.” At many points she drifts toward politics made him do it: His cheapness was a way of living out his ideal of fiscal responsibility; his lying was a response to the media’s hunger to destroy reputations.
For another, Jenny has consciously chosen to avoid the path of feminist heroine. Unlike Hillary Clinton, she was not dragged out of her big city life into a southern America kicking and screaming. Despite her success at the investment bank Lazard Frères before her marriage, she had no interest in putting in 18-hour days and couldn’t wait to get to Charleston as a stay-at-home wife (at least, when she wasn’t playing campaign manager). She imagined her life just as she thought it was—staying home in a big house, raising a brood of boys with the help of a successful husband who made it home for dinner sometimes. She did not bristle when he hinted he wanted boys and wouldn’t know what to do with a girl.
A more strident type might have made Sanford suffer more in print. As it is, she comes across as remarkably devoid of bitterness and in a somewhat good mood. Is she truly so sanguine? Hard to tell. Her cheerfulness may have something to do with the stage of her separation from him—she’s still busy justifying the last 20 years of her life. She must know visible hatred would be too much for her sons. And somewhere, deep down, she must know that more than the tone, it’s the details—the $25 bike, Lamaze, the diamond necklace—that will resonate.
At times in the book, you get a flash of the Jenny that could have been. She jokes about having to clap at an event where the boys all got hats printed with the shorthand “COCKS.” She writes, with a flash of dark humor: “I shiver when I think that while I was cleaning up after a delicious family meal … he was e-mailing his ‘soul mate’ with visions of her tan lines.” She makes sure to mention that once, when Mark was lying about seeing his mistress in New York, he also moaned to her about a new bald spot forming at the back of his head. These flashes of sassy do not a feminist heroine make. But maybe they qualify her for hearty survivor or, at worst, cautionary tale.