Columbia, S.C. – After a lifetime in politics, Mark Sanford has no idea what he’s doing next, and doesn’t seem to care.
“There is a green pickup truck out there in the garage,” said Sanford in his soft southern drawl as he pointed out the window. “It belongs to our oldest son. I’m going to get into that pickup and I’m going to drive east on I-26.”
“And that’s all I know,” he added with a slight shrug.
When asked if his future included a girlfriend from Argentina, Sanford was tight-lipped. Speaking about the break-up of his marriage, he simply noted, “I’ve said all one could possibly say about my personal life.”
Visibly older, tired, and noticeably absent a wedding ring, Sanford sat down with The Daily Caller, or as he put it, “took a break from packing boxes to talk,” three days after Christmas and with exactly 15 days left in office. Sitting on one of the ornate yet well-worn couches that are scattered throughout the 150-year-old Governor’s Mansion, Sanford wore faded blue jeans and a lime green button-down shirt. He is known throughout the state for his low-key approach to fashion: faded jeans or khakis, polos or button-downs. Except in certain circumstances, this is the norm for the governor who calls Sullivan’s Island — a suburb just off the coast near Charleston — home.
The soon-to-be former governor — he’ll step aside for Republican governor-elect Nikki Haley today — has in the last 18 months gone from conservative hero and prospective 2012 presidential candidate to disgraced, outgoing governor who will likely never run for public office again – though he tells TheDC that he would “never say never.”
Cynics might say that Sanford embodies everything that could possibly be wrong with politics: an ideological warrior corrupted by the temptations and compromise that go along with a career in the national, political spotlight. But as Sanford says, “To have lived life fully is to have regrets…That’s a reality of the human experience.”
It seems surprising that an outgoing governor would have no set plans for when he leaves office. Either Sanford really does not want to answer the question, which would reveal personal and private information, or he genuinely does not know what he will be doing once he and his truck reach the east coast. His answers seemed to suggest a mix of both, though Sanford did a pretty good job of convincing it is more the latter.
“For a whole variety of reasons I just decided I wanted to run all the way to the finish line with the job at hand and for me that ends on Inauguration Day,” said Sanford. “You know, this coming week if I was really earnest, I’d be dealing with a head hunter [in New York] for two days which means there’d be an article in The State newspaper saying, ‘He’s there he’s not here.’ And so I really haven’t.”
Throughout the interview, Sanford was more interested in reflecting on his eight years in office than discussing plans for the future. After defeating the incumbent Democratic governor by a fairly comfortable margin in 2002, Sanford went to Columbia with big plans to reform the state’s budget and fiscal woes. That inevitably created sparks with the state legislature. One particular clash even ended with Sanford carrying two pigs into the house chambers to protest pork barrel spending after the general assembly backed out of an agreement to pay off the budget deficit.
Two weeks after Sanford’s protest, the legislature found a way to pay down the deficit. “Would that have happened if there hadn’t been that public pressure? I don’t think so,” said Sanford. “The only image captured is me holding a couple of pigs, but again, it was a last resort.” For many, the incident launched the rise of Sanford as a conservative hero.
But it’s when the personal stuff came up that Sanford got really circumspect about details.
Instead, he chose to be more philosophical and big-picture focused. Two things were striking in his answers.
Friends have become hugely important.
He has experienced a rebirth in terms of understanding the themes of grace and forgiveness.
After Sanford publicly admitted to his affair, it was as if karma had a personal vendetta against him. His love letters were leaked to The State, his wife Jenny left him (he described his relationship with her and his sons as “good,” though declined to comment further), serious talk of impeachment continued for weeks, and he was slapped with the largest ethics fine in state history of $74,000.
“There’s remarkable comfort in friendship,” he said. “And you know, I understood friendship in an intellectual sense before, but until you really need a friend you don’t really understand friendship….How many friends do you have that would fly in from Florida or Dallas, Texas just because they’re thinking about you?”
He also went on to say that the people of South Carolina have shown a great capacity for forgiveness. It is evident that that has had a profound impact on him.
“Obviously I’m embarrassed, I embarrassed myself,” Sanford said. After taking a pause, he continued slowly: “The mountaintops of life are wonderful, but it’s in the valleys that you really learn. So it’s been a pretty profound introspection.”
Sanford has had a lot of time for introspection over the last 18 months when he has not been consumed with wrapping up his duties as governor and living in what he describes as his “own fishbowl.” When asked who would be his ideal candidate for president in 2012, he paused for a moment and admitted he couldn’t think of anyone. When asked his thoughts on Sarah Palin now that’s she’s practically everywhere, he responded with, “she is?”
Sanford declined to speculate as to whether he would have been preparing for a presidential run with the likes of Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich had things turned out differently. “I think it’s counterproductive,” he said. “I think you gotta live life where you are; in the day that you’re in…you don’t get to do a redo on life.”
Although he did not openly admit it, he seemed to understand, without any arrogance or self pity, that his story is one of immense promise and talent squandered. In other words, no one understands the rise and fall of Mark Sanford better than the man himself.
Toward the end of the interview, Sanford noted a “little-known Scottish historian” by the name of Alexander Tytler and cited entirely from memory a saying that is often attributed to him:
“Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”
Sanford was talking about government, but he just as easily could have been describing his own life.
Yet, as the very-soon-to-be former governor exits the governor’s mansion, he seemed ok with his predicament.
“I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about where I’m not in life,” he said. “You know where I am right now? I’m moving boxes. That’s what I’m doing – I’m packing things. That’s where I am right now.”