I don’t quite know what to think of Jim Rutenberg’s long, semi-sympathetic profile of Mark Sanford for the New York Times Magazine. But it’s gripping in a strange sort of way, as a glimpse into the life of an extremely privileged and self-centered man who appears to think his return from a self-inflicted personal and political implosion is some sort of Christian redemption story.

The story begins with Sanford showing Rutenberg his physical and spiritual home, a plantation in Beaufort County (once famed as the site of a Senate investigation into starvation that helped spur creation of the food stamp program–you know, the program conservatives like Sanford consider a sign of the collapse of civiliation) his father bought not to build crops but to provide a suitably aristocratic backdrop for his sons’ upbringing. We learn that Sanford had an absolutely charmed life until his famous “Appalachian hike” in 2009:

The eldest son of a heart surgeon, Sanford was handsome, tall and competitive — an Eagle Scout and a high-school track-team captain. He spent the summers sequestered with his younger brothers and sister at Coosaw [the family plantation], where he developed the can’t-lose confidence that carried him into adulthood. “I guess you thought you could accomplish or do things because it wasn’t like you’d compete with people who could outperform you,” he said


He ran for Congress six years after graduating from business school, with no political contacts, donor network or name recognition. He won on a newly popular promise: to limit his service to six years. As a freshman, he immediately set out to make himself the national face of the blossoming term-limits movement, as well as the nascent campaign to privatize Social Security. He was impatient and self-righteous, and he joined the failed attempt to oust Speaker Newt Gingrich, for supposedly giving up too much on the budget deal that ended the government shutdown in 1996. Later, when Gingrich’s potential successor, Bob Livingston, admitted to an affair, Sanford castigated him: “He lied under a different oath, and that is the oath to his wife.”

Aside from the humiliation Sanford suffered after his affair with an Argentinian “soul-mate” was exposed–much of it from his soon-to-be-ex-wife, to whom Sanford owed a lot of his good political fortune–we learn that he experienced the terrible pain of ingratitude from his protege, Nikki Haley, who never thanked him for ads he ran on her behalf as she ran to succeed him in 2010. But it got worse:

About a year later, the former governor set aside his pride and asked the new governor if she could spare one of her University of South Carolina football season tickets so Sanford’s oldest son could see a game; he also asked if his son and a couple of high-school friends could have an al fresco meal on the grounds of the mansion, his childhood home. Sanford has told friends that her office balked at the ticket and declined to provide a meal.

Sanford’s friends said it stung. “You know, she just didn’t,” said [close Sanford friend John] Rainey, who has been in a long-running feud with Haley. (He has called her “the most corrupt person to occupy the governor’s mansion since Reconstruction.” Haley, a Sikh American, has called Rainey a “racist, sexist bigot.”)

Nice people, eh?

But poor, abandoned Sanford persevered, with some post-gubernatorial gigs from Fox News and corporate boards–the kind of safety net disgraced right-wing aristocrats can count on. And in due time, thanks to some characteristic luck (the sudden resignation of Jim DeMint and the appointment of Tim Scott to his Senate seat, opening up Sanford’s old House seat), and with the encouragement of kind souls like the Christian Right icon Chuck Colson, Sanford returned with a special election victory, and is now floating towards November with no opposition to a full term.

The ultimate point of Rutenberg’s story is to let us know a chastened Sanford has now abandoned his old showboating ways in the House and is a faithful follower of the leadership (though apparently rueful about the time he invested in a friendship with Eric Cantor). He’s now dutifully stumping his district instead of plotting a presidential run, and it seems he and his fiancee–the aforementioned Argentinian soul-mate–are having trouble establishing a stable relationship. The title of the piece–“Mark Sanford’s Path of Most Resistance”–is supposed, I guess, to connote a sort of Pilgrim’s Progress, if not actual martyrdom, for the former conservative titan. But to me it comes across as a tale as old as the South and as new as its current GOP hegemons: a tale of the power of privilege to salve all wounds and forgive all sins, for those in the right social station with the right ideology.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.