South Carolina's governor went missing, claiming to be hiking. He was in Argentina. "I have been unfaithful," he said.
It all started innocently, the South Carolina governor said, when he and a woman struck up a conversation eight years ago. She confided in him about being separated from her husband and Mark Sanford provided comfort, counseling her to get back together for the sake of her two boys and because marriage is sacred. He asked for her e-mail address and they kept in touch, he from South Carolina and she from Argentina.
Then, about a year ago, came "that whole sparking thing," he recalled Wednesday at a riveting news conference. Suddenly, the relationship turned romantic and went into "serious overdrive." The couple rendezvoused twice, both times secretly. But a third meeting last week would not be so discreet.
Sanford disappeared from South Carolina for nearly a week over Father's Day, infuriating lawmakers in Columbia and leaving behind befuddled staffers who could only say that they thought their boss was hiking on the Appalachian Trail. But he actually sneaked away from Columbia and jetted to Buenos Aires, where he spent five days with the woman "crying in Argentina."
Sanford, 49, a Bible-quoting social conservative and rising star in the Republican Party who had harbored presidential ambitions, returned home Wednesday to face a national television audience for 20 minutes, offering a rambling and at times tearful apology for his affair.
"The bottom line is this," Sanford said. "I have been unfaithful to my wife."
After ruminating about the affair with stark frankness, the visibly shaken governor solved a captivating mystery about his whereabouts, cemented his reputation as one of America's most eccentric political figures and became the latest prominent politician whose hopes may have been undone by infidelity.
As Sanford digressed about his boyhood adventures on the Appalachian Trail and about "God's law" and moral absolutes, people standing behind him in the Capitol Rotunda could be seen smirking. Sanford is known for sometimes quirky behavior.
During his six years in Congress he turned down his housing allowance and slept on a cot in his Capitol Hill office. A frugal governor, he requires his staff to use both sides of a Post-it note and rose to national prominence this year by rejecting federal stimulus funds for his state, drawing the ire of lawmakers there. He even once lampooned pork spending in the budget by carrying two pigs onto the floor of the state House chamber.
But on Wednesday, Sanford stood out for a stunning confession. He said he told his wife, Jenny, of the affair about five months ago. They are effectively separated, with her and their four sons living apart from him at the family home on prestigious Sullivan's Island near Charleston.
Jenny Sanford, 46, a former Wall Street executive whose grandfather founded a power-saw manufacturing company, did not appear at the news conference and issued a statement saying they agreed to a "trial separation" with the goal of "ultimately strengthening our marriage."
"We reached a point where I felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect and my basic sense of right and wrong," she said. "I therefore asked my husband to leave two weeks ago."
Sanford on Wednesday resigned as head of the Republican Governors Association, but he did not say whether he would step down as governor before his second four-year term ends in 18 months.
Over the past year, Sanford said, his relationship with the Argentinian woman "developed into something much more than that. And as a consequence, I hurt her. I hurt you all. I hurt my wife. I hurt my boys. ... And all I can say is that I apologize."
Late Wednesday, The State, a South Carolina newspaper, published e-mails between Sanford's personal account and the woman it identified as "Maria" in Buenos Aires.
On July 10, 2008, Sanford wrote: "You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that's so fitting with your beauty. I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificent gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curve of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself ... in the faded glow of the night's light -- but hey, that would be going into sexual details."