Before We Go On
In 2009, Jenny Sanford called me to tell me she was working on a book. She asked me to sign a waiver to reference me in the book. As I understand it, publishing companies like these waivers to keep people from suing them and the author. I asked what she planned to say, and she detailed the three points where I would come up.
First, I was not central to her story. She was married to the man and had her story to tell, and I wasn’t necessary to tell it. Second, one of the items was an absolute lie. What she was going to say is true as I said it to her, but not the fact that I lied to her or why. She had no reason to know that I lied, but I would not let that narrative sit out there without context.
Why did I lie to her? It’s a more extended conversation about trying to get to the truth of where Sanford was and what I didn’t know. I stopped believing what I was being told almost immediately after the shit hit the fan. So I lied to her to see if I could flush out the truth. I didn’t.
I did not know where Sanford was and had been trying to reach him for 48 hours by that point. I knew two things: He didn’t want to be found, and at least one person close to him knew the truth and wasn’t telling me the truth. I just didn’t know who. So any information I got was immediately suspect until I could figure it out.
I didn’t want to put a lie out to the public during all the chaos. If you learn nothing from Watergate, it’s that the crime wasn’t the break-in but the coverup. That’s why it took seven hours to release the now-infamous “hiking the Appalachian Trail” story. I just didn’t believe it when it was told to me once, told to me twice, told to me three times, and finally, a fourth. By then, I hoped it wasn’t a lie.
So I stopped sharing information with anyone except our Communications Director, Joel Sawyer. The two of us became inseparable from the time the story broke until the worst press conference ever. We were stationed in a room away from the staff, except for when we slipped out the West Front door of the Governor’s Office to chain smoke. We’ll get to all that, too.
My decision to decline the waiver didn’t stop Jenny from writing and publishing her book. She was central to that story, not me. If you haven’t read Staying True, it’s still available. I read it first to see if my name appeared (it did not), and then I read it just to get to know more about Mark and Jenny beyond our business relationship and the veneer of politics.
Former Sanford speechwriter Barton Swaim wrote The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics. To get around that pesky waiver issue, Barton used a literary device made famous by Joe Klein in Primary Colors, changing the names to protect the
guilty innocent publisher. In this book, I am Stewart.
Stewart is a poorly-dressed, foul-mouthed agitator prone to outbursts in the book. I was a poorly-dressed, foul-mouthed agitator prone to outbursts in real life. So, the depiction was fair.
One of the things I learned from the book is how other people viewed me. Let’s say that I was not weighed down by perception in the Sanford days. In Barton’s book, I come across as a cynical voice of reality in the middle of insanity. That’s flattering, and, hopefully, that was the role I fulfilled for the people working with me. It was difficult not to be cynical by Sanford’s second term as governor. We’ll get to that, too.
Sanford Speaks…Sort of
In 2021, Mark Sanford put out Two Roads Diverged. The book gives you a glimpse into the now-infamous 2009 disappearance that ended his presidential ambitions. True to Sanford form, he waits until the last possible moment to speak on the issue, leaving others to cover the details. He uses it to pivot to the real reason for the book, reclaiming the Republican Party that he believes abandoned its conservative roots. The typos in the book stopped me a couple of times as his voice played in my head, “I stop reading when I see an error.” We’ll get to that, too.
Full disclosure, I purchased the book from Amazon. With some luck, I might get it autographed one day.
So What Now?
Former Communications Director Joel Sawyer wrote a piece after leaving the Governor’s Office in 2009 about why he wouldn’t write a book. He said, in part,
“Any political organization is a team effort, and decisions are made every day about what parts of those inner workings will and won’t be discussed publicly. If you don’t like the decisions, you leave, period. But when authors later recount episode after episode worth telling to the public years after they occurred, it leaves the impression that the only reason they stayed as long as they did was to accumulate anecdotes.”
He’s right to some degree. He decided to leave, and I don’t blame him. Sanford and, unknowingly, I put him out on the plank to lie to the public. He knew as much as I did, but as both of us learned, that wasn’t enough. Joel is still one of my closest friends, and I was honored to officiate his wedding in 2019.
However, his rule is not universal. For me, the Appalachian Trail episode occurred after I’d known Sanford for 15 years, serving five years on his congressional staff, six months on a gubernatorial campaign, and nearly seven years in the Governor’s Office. I was Chief of Staff when this happened. As I said in The Man v. The Brand, “[f]or better or worse, I am forever linked to Mark Sanford….” In short, this is also my story. I will tell you what I experienced, the mistakes I made (there were a few), and the lessons I learned.
Many other people were involved, and they deserve to tell their own story, not let me do it. This is about what I did in the midst of a messy crisis, good and bad. Over the years, I’ve had the honor and pleasure of working with many dedicated, talented, and intelligent folks. For those in the Governor’s Office when Sanford went missing, they did the best they could when there was no playbook for this kind of crisis. Most of them stayed after it was over, and to those people, I will never forget their commitment despite the consequences. Without those folks, I could not be the person I am today, and, for that, I am eternally grateful.