Listening In: Mark Sanford

WARREN SMITH, HOST: I’m Warren Smith, and today you’re listening in on my conversation with congressman and former South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford.

Mark Sanford has had one of the more fascinating public lives over the past 20 or so years. He was still in his early thirties when he was elected to Congress from South Carolina during the Republican Revolution year of 1994. He quickly established a reputation as one of the most conservative members of that already very conservative congressional class. And even though he won reelection twice, the second time with more than 90 percent of the vote, he honored a promise to voters and refuse to run for reelection in 2000. But by 2002, he was back in politics, winning the governor’s race in South Carolina. And that almost immediately started getting him talked about as a future candidate for president. He started developing a national constituency when he proved willing to fight his own party over what he considered to be excessive spending. He was also elected president of the Republican Governors Association. He made national headlines when he refused to accept relief funds from the federal government following the housing collapse of 2008 and 2009. But in 2009 Sanford’s career and his life went off the rails when an extra marital affair he had been having went public.

He finished serving out his term as governor, though he barely survived an impeachment attempt. Most people, including Sanford himself thought his political career was over when he left office and returned to his family’s farm and a real estate business in the low country of South Carolina. What happened next though was one of the more remarkable comebacks in modern political history. In 2013, less than three years after Sanford left office in disgrace, South Carolina Senator Jim Demint resigned from the Senate to become president of the conservative Heritage Foundation. Governor Nikki Haley named Tim Scott to take Demint’s place in the Senate and Mark Sanford won Tim Scott’s seat in a special election. When he came back to Washington, he was his old, fiscally conservative, combative self, ultimately earning the ire even of the president of the United States, Donald Trump, who campaigned against Sanford earlier this year. It was a political fight that Trump and his candidate for the office, Katie Arrington, ultimately won. So you might say my conversation with Mark Sanford today is something of an exit interview, a conversation that reflects back on his political career, going all the way to the mid nineties. I had this conversation with Mark Sanford at his office in the Rayburn House office building on Capitol Hill.

Congressman, thank you so much for the interview. I’ve been trying to do this interview for a long time, but you’ve been busy. I guess you’re going to be less busy in the years ahead.

SANFORD: Well, time will tell, and maybe it’ll be a different kind of busy.

SMITH: Well, I do want to get to that because what you’re going to do afterwards, but I’ll hold that question off until later. I guess I want to begin maybe not quite at the beginning, but begin with at least the beginning of your congressional career. You served three terms in Congress back in the 90s and you term limited yourself at that time and you’ve been a proponent of term limits over the years. From that time to this time where you’ve been sort of term limited in a different way, what’s changed?

SANFORD: Nothing. I’ve come to believe in more and more concrete form how important term limits are. The idea of limited time in office is vital not only to new blood in the system, but frankly to retaining the taxpayer perspective that remembers how important fewer zeroes are rather than more in the way of zeros. And what happens is it the same way that a prisoner of war gets somehow accustomed to the most unbelievable circumstances that you would think would kill them off immediately, the human species is remarkably adaptable. People adapt. They come to Washington and they adapt to a lot of zeros. And so it’s important to come for a time, leave, know that you’re going home to retain that taxpayer perspective.

SMITH: When you were serving in Congress the first time, you were widely known as a fiscal conservative, and some of that you just indicated right now in your answer. Cato Institute, I think named you the most conservative member of Congress. They’re concerned more about fiscal issues and social issues, but you’ve been a social conservative as well. And even then, people were talking about the possibility of Mark Sanford in higher office. And one of the knocks on you then was that you didn’t have executive experience. So you went home and you became the governor of South Carolina. Talk a little bit about that experience, and from your perspective now, was that a, was that an appropriate criticism? Does someone who aspires to the highest office in the land need that kind of executive experience?

SANFORD: I would say so, in some form or another, it’s important because they’re a markedly different experiences, legislative versus executive branch or legislative versus running the company or go down or being an admiral in the Navy. But, but there’s just a line of accountability and responsibility that comes with an executive role that doesn’t come as being one of 435 in the House. So I do think it’s important. It came about rather miraculously as so many things do in life. I had gone home thought that that was it for me in politics. And a couple of years later, next thing you know, you’ve been approached by a patriarch from South Carolina, great guy, John Rainey, who’s since died, but drove down and had lunch with me and Jenny and said I think you need to do this. And I went into the reasons as to why I didn’t think that was such a good idea. He came back with the Parable of the Talents of all things. Of saying, look, you’ve accumulated, pooled political capital such that you could legitimately run for Senate or governor, and I think you ought to and went from there. And it was a great experience. Not all of it, not every moment of it, like anything else. But I think the whole of the experience really helped to shape my view not only in politics but on the notion of leadership.

SMITH: I want to pause on that period in your life, if I could, ask a couple of questions or just talk a little bit. Because it was during that period of time, I think, that I got to know you a little bit. I was living in Charlotte. I was running a a Christian newspaper in Charlotte and in Columbia and was writing a little bit about you. And then one day, it was I think between Congress and governor, you came up to Charlotte and we had breakfast together. And I thought that was going to last maybe an hour because I knew you were a busy guy. We probably sat in the Andersons restaurant for probably two or three hours and you asked a lot of questions and were really thinking deeply. I remember specifically about the abortion issue and was was that a time, that period between Congress and the governorship, was what I was seeing there were you were really wrestling with issues and trying to figure out what you believed in, how you believed you could articulate those beliefs. Was that happening in other areas of your life or was I just seeing one little slice and not necessarily indicative of what was going on then?

SANFORD: No, I think that that’s indicative of a fairly wide slice because what happens is you’ve been a business person. You get elected to Congress. All of a sudden you’re asked a of your view on Ukraine. You’re asked of your view on what’s happening in the South China Sea. You’re asked of your view on what ought to be the appropriate level of engagement with Latvia as it relates to Russia. I mean just go down the list. This stuff you haven’t thought about at all, but you’re in the frying pan. You’re busy. And it was in the aftermath of that time in Congress that you begin to say, okay, I took these votes. I think I more or less understood where I was coming from as best I could within the fire hose that I was drinking out of, but I have more time and let me dig down a little bit deeper because it’s not enough just to, to vote a certain way and to believe as you might believe an issue, but to really understand the why of the why.

Because I think in public policy, and you can see this, you know, I write a daily Facebook post describing why I voted as I did now. When I was governor, you know, we’d had these sort of a Darwinian sessions where we’d throw an idea out in the middle and we’d debate it back and forth and hopefully the, you got to a better version of the truth by having that intense debate around it. I think it’s important not just to know what you believe, but to be able to communicate the why of what you believe. And it was during that time period that I really had the time to dig down on some issues. Not just on, I believe it, but let me be able to very clearly articulate the why of why I believe it.

SMITH: There was something else had happened about that period as well, about that period of time. I think it was 2003 when you joined the Air Force and you were not, I mean, you know, you’re a young man now, but let’s just say you weren’t an 18 year old. You weren’t a 22 year old when that happened. You’d already served in Congress. Talk about why you did that and why you did it then.

SANFORD: Looking back on it, it’s crazy. Just a, it’s so interesting that you remember that because I go to fairly great lengths to be very low key about it. I did it for a variety of personal reasons. One is that during that six years that I was in Congress, I was just struck by the degree to which we talked a lot about the rights that go with being American, but not the responsibilities that go with being American. And I think as a society we’ve fundamentally disconnected those two. And so I thought, well, Hey, wait, if you really believe it, you got to act on it. And have you acted on it? And that whole internal debate. And so part of it was about, what do I believe again? Do I back up my action with a belief? It goes right to the conversation we’re just having about being, communicate at a maybe a soul level, a heart level internally. Why do I believe this? And so I hadn’t acted on that belief, and therefore, was it really a belief or was it just a passing idea? And so part of it was my own belief system of how do you better connect the rights that go with being an American with the responsibilities that go with being American. Part of it was I became — I fell in love, if you will, with the military during my six years in Congress. I was exposed to these folks that have extraordinary leadership capacity. And you think about an aircraft carrier and, and, and you had all these young kids basically run around the thing and yet they operate this amazing piece of machinery in large measure because they have some protocols in place, but also because they have great leaders in place. So I’ve always been a student of leadership. I thought I could learn more about leadership. And then third and finally I did it because I thought that I’d have a lot more credibility as a dad and saying to each one of my boys, hey, I wasn’t on the pointy end of the spear. I was, you know, in essence a paper pusher. I was clerical, but you know, that’s the most I could do given the age I went in. But based on the experience, you ought to, too. And I thought I’d have a lot more credibility as a dad if I myself had served in some capacity though it was limited compared to the people who really do the really hard and difficult things in the military. And so I did it and none of the boys have gone into the military. They saw the eight years I had there and some of the time commitments that it entailed, and they said no, thank you. So, so I don’t know that it worked out quite as I hoped it would, but, but that was the reasoning as to why.

SMITH: Well, all of that is kind of prologue, congressman, to ask this. You were a guy on the fast track. You served, served in Congress. You were now a, a governor of an important state when it comes to, not a big state, but an important state when it comes to electoral politics. It’s one of the early primaries. You had, you know, now sort of burnished your reputation with this military service even though you, I’m, you know, I don’t mean to dismiss it and say that it was a burnishing of your reputation, but it was certainly a feather in your cap. You were getting all these great reviews from people like the Cato Institute. You were making people mad in South Carolina that a lot of conservatives would say for all the right reasons. I seem to recall you bringing two piglets into the state capital down there to sort of talk about pork barrel spending, even when even though the legislature down there was controlled by Republicans. And then it kinda all went off the rails. How did that happen?

SANFORD: I fell in love with somebody I shouldn’t have. And there are a whole host of important lessons to be learned in that chapter of life. One of which is to guard against loneliness. Interestingly, I said to my former wife, Jenny, within a very short time of being in the governorship, I said to her, this job is killing me. I didn’t know how right I was at the time. But if you go with the flow, I would argue the governorship is the best job that there is out there politically. But if you push against the current, which we did in very significant ways, it’s excruciatingly lonely. Unlike the legislative body, where you have a whole cadre of peers, eagles fly alone and, and fundamentally in an executive role, you see these other governors a couple times a year at different conferences. But you really don’t have many peers to compare notes with. And so I could give a lot of different lessons learned on a lot of different fronts, but I would say I blew myself up and there’s no getting around it, no excuse for it. But — and again, I’m not in any way rationalizing but in part because I ended up lonely and that again does not in any way justify my action. I’m not trying to in any way justify it, but you’re asking the why and that’s sort of how it happened. And then it all unfolded from there.

But I will say this: I experienced human grace, which is ultimately a reflection of God’s grace, at a level that I didn’t know even existed. And so it became a very spiritual journey, oddly enough. I mean, the last year and a half my wife had left, the boys were down at the beach. You’re in essence in a prison, sort of a 20,000 square foot governor’s mansion, but you’re living there alone. And I thought I knew loneliness before. I didn’t even touch the tip of the iceberg. But there’s a lot of introspection that goes with pain, and there was a lot of pain in that chapter of life. And so what I would say is probably grew and developed more as a human being. I probably developed more in the way of empathy for my fellow man than I ever had before. You know, in previous steps of life, as you were just alluding, the doors just kept opening. And not, there wasn’t any grand plan. It was God opening doors, and you kept walking through them. And another door open. Another open. You’d have chairman of the Republican Governors Association on and on and on. But all of a sudden, all the doors were closed. And that causes you to look, maybe in ways that you hadn’t ever before, both for God, to God for solace in that chapter of life and to, to, to other dear friends that were with you in that chapter of life. So, it’s one that I still contemplate because your star was on the rise and you feel like, oh my goodness, I’ve just ruined my life and I’ve ruined my boys’ lives. But then you read the story of Jacob and Joseph and how even that which was intended for bad God turned and made it good. And I would just say without going into lots of detail, there has been, oddly enough, a lot of good that’s come from that bad chapter of life.

SMITH: Well, I’ll just have to take your word for the good that came out of it. I kind of in these kinds of interviews, congressman, view children as off limits in, in the conversation. So I won’t ask you about, you know, the consequences there, but I don’t think it’s unfair for me to say that there were some, even with all of the good that may have come out of it, the spiritual growth, the introspection and all of that, some pretty horrible consequences for, for you and for those who admire your policies for the country. And you basically took yourself out of the running forever as being a candidate for president of the United States, which you were very seriously talked about. Do you, do you have a sense of the lost opportunities there?

SANFORD: You can’t dwell on them. It’ll drive you crazy. I think that, you know, you can Monday afternoon quarterback yourself to death, you can look at the would ofs, the could ofs, and the should ofs of life, but you will end up in misery. And so I’ve listened to a tape series then, but actually by Redeemer Presbyterian Church up in New York City. And it goes into fairly great depth on the Jacob-Joseph story. And I hang onto that, and that’s all you can do because to do otherwise is just to drive yourself crazy.

SMITH: And you know, I think a lot of folks though that know something about your story. Maybe you said it and maybe folks just didn’t hear it, but I think they at some point, want you to just say, I made a big mistake. I’m sorry. Do you feel that way?

SANFORD: Absolutely. But, but again, you weren’t a part of it, being in Charlotte. But they dubbed it the apology tour. I spent the last year and a half of my life, I’d go around to every rotary talk and you’d begin it with, let’s begin with the elephant in the room. I let you all down and I’m sorry for the way I handled this. And, and, and you know, I’d go from there. And finally it got to the point of, they’re like, would you shut up? We got it. You know, God forgives and we’ve forgiven. And you don’t need to constantly wear that on the front of every speech that you give going forward. And so it’s a point of great personal embarrassment. It’s a point of great personal regret, but I can’t undo it, and so all you can hope that you do is to learn from it and to be a better person going forward as a consequence of it.

SMITH: Well, what has happened, even though the presidency may be probably out of your future, you got one of the great second acts in American political history, certainly modern political history by getting reelected to Congress after all of this happened. Was that a consequence of this quote unquote apology tour? Did, did you go around and people saw your sincerity and thought that they could put their trust in you again?

SANFORD: People knew I was sincere. There were certainly no plan to it because to say that I’ve figured that politics was forever over for me would be the understatement of the millennium. That was obvious to everyone. Oddly enough, our last year ended up being one of our most productive legislatively because a lot of folks thought I was trying to run for president, whatever, whatever, and they’re holding back merit badges. They didn’t want to give another merit badge. When it was abundantly clear that he wasn’t running for president, they said, we’ll let some of this stuff go through. So a lot of different strange things happened, but you ended your time, the governorship, and  I went into a very quiet chapter of life. I’d call it a pariah hermit stage of life. And I went down to our family farm and had a very, very quiet time. And then it’s like buds on a tree in the spring. I started to push in certain areas and just for the first time in my life, no doors were opening. I mean absolutely none. And then it was sort of like manna from heaven. Out of left field, in none of the areas where I was pushing, God just sort of said, I’m going to take care of some stuff for you and, and things begin to come along and then you’re back up and up and going and variety, different commercial things happening. And out of left field, something that never happens in South Carolina happens, which is a U.S. senator decides to retire. We carry ours out in body bags. I mean it just never happens. But anyway, Jim Demint retires. That sets in motion Tim’s deployment to the U.S. Senate. And I was in a real estate office and these guys walk in and say, you need to do this. I’m like, are you completely out of your mind? I mean, the scabs are finally healing. Not a chance in the world. But long story short, one thing led to another and here we are.

SMITH: Well, it was a remarkable series of events because as you say, South Carolina senators don’t retire. They carry them out of the capitol in body bags. But Jim Demint became president of the Heritage Foundation. Tim Scott took a seat that left an open seat. Tim Scott’s congressional seat, and that would happen to be where you live. That was the part of the state that you were from. So you get this second chance. You say things are not that different. How are you different? How are you sort of approaching things now that have been different? And I’m sort of, I ask that question maybe as a setup question, congressman, because you’re still not making friends up here, you know, because of one of the reasons you got beat, and we’re going to come to this, is because you got the president of United States mad at you. But before we get to all that, what’s different?

SANFORD: Two different things. One is, I was never arrogant. You were around me. I was always a low key southern guy. But at times I was so focused on the objective at hand that I didn’t enough focus on the people to my left or to my right. And so now, you know, you sit beside somebody like John Lewis, on the House floor. I never would have had a conversation with him before. Not that I disliked him or had anything against him. Just, I was busy. He was busy. And we went our separate ways. Now I have more time to stop and just to have time to be available to people, to my left, to my right in a way that I didn’t before, as I was so focused on the next objective at hand. The other thing that’s different is once you’re dead, you’re, you know, you’re dead. Uh, and I’ve been dead in a political sense and I have been awarded this second chance. I think it’s important to call things as you see them. It’s always been my nature, but it’s maybe a little bit on steroids now even to the point, get me in trouble in a political sense here lately. But I think that that’s a byproduct of, of having gone through a chapter where you were more or less left on the side of the road politically. Uh, I respect, admire and appreciate the fact that you’d say children, in my case, the boys are off limits. But let me just throw them into the equation. And I think this is important for any listener out there who may have failed, whether they publicly failed or the privately failed in being open to one personal repentance in sorrow and turning to God in, in, in, in the wake of any kind of personal tragedy. But two, being open to the way in which God can in fact use crisis points in our lives for good.

And so, you know, maybe something goes wrong with the boys in, in time, but I could not be more spectacularly proud of each one of them for the way that they’ve handled themselves, conducted themselves, the way that they’re achieving and doing their walks of faith in the deep parts of the night at times. You can’t think of the ways in which you caused them harm. You caused them pain, and they looked at your life and said, boy, I sure don’t want to go down that path. And maybe it’s caused them to walk that much more upright in their own path. And so I don’t know where all this goes, but what I do know is that in the same way that you throw a little pebble into the lake and it sends out ripples, whether it’s good or bad that disseminates and comes out from our life, God can use every one of those ripples to his own effect and be open to the possibility that not, not because of you, not because of what you’re doing, not because of what you’ve done, but to the way that God can be a guide of Jujitsu in turning it around and using it in very, very constructive and powerful ways.

SMITH: Your opposition to Trump is what cost you your seat in Congress. So you were defeated in the primary by someone that very closely aligned with Trump. Trump actually tweeted on Election Day to vote for the other person, and was constantly talking about what a pain in the rear, and I think that may have even been the exact language that he used in some of his tweets. What is your concern about Trump?

SANFORD: In simplest form, if you go down to my implosion, I mean I never personally told a lie, but I was living a lie. And I saw firsthand the absolute cancerous effect of not telling the truth in the way that we live, in what we say. And so my media guy says, Mark, you at times take the Trump stuff a little bit too seriously, but perhaps it’s because of your own experience. And I think that that’s true. And the president routinely says things that aren’t true. And I think that that’s a problem whether one is of faith or not of faith, because the glue that holds an open democratic political system together is objective truth. Once we decide that this microphone recorder, it’s black, now we can have a debate on whether or not we like black, whether or not that’s the right shade of black. We can have a lot of different debates and come to some concrete conclusion that moves the ball forward. But if we can’t ever even agree that black is black, now we’ve got a really profound problem. Do I get it? That throughout the course of time, different people have always had their different views on a whole host of different things as Republicans, as Democrats, as liberals, as conservatives? Yes. But I think he’s taken it to new levels, and I think that that’s a problem. And so I think fundamentally it’s tied to truth. If you look at my voting record, it’s been consistently to support his agenda with its regulatory reform, tax reform. But I’ve had an objection to that. And, and things like that have caused me to, to, to in essence get into trouble with him. I mean, for instance, well before he was the nominee, some reporter comes, sticks a microphone in your face and says, do you think the future nominee ought to release their tax returns, knowing full and well, that ad released mine twice when I’ve gotten the nomination for the governorship and that, that was a unique perspective in the congress since I, at that time was the only former governor who is a member of the House of Representatives.

And so you say, yeah, I think so because it’s ultimately not about the presidential return. It’s about transparency at the state level, and if you don’t do it at the presidential level, believe me gubernatorial candidates won’t be doing it at the state level. Then it turns out the president gets the nomination, and you know, the same report comes back, sticks a microphone in your face and says, you know, what do you think? And you can’t reverse yourself at that point. You say, well for the reasons I stated before, I think it’s important. It’s not about the presidential return, it’s about transparency in the political process, another data point for folks decide whether their gubernatorial candidate has some nefarious dealings or doesn’t. And — but apparently he took that quite personally. He thought I was going after him. I wasn’t going after him. I was just trying to be consistent. And things like that created the rift that caused him to do what he did.

SMITH: Congressman, I want to pivot and get to that final question that, that I know you have been probably asking yourself and other people have been asking you, but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t ask you as well. What are you going to do next? I mean, you may be — the presidency is out of your future, but you’re still a relatively young man, especially in this environment. You’re not yet 60. We’ve got a guy that was just elected president in his mid 70s. So I’m guessing you’ve got at least a few ideas about what your future is going to be. You’re not going to go down to the low country and start playing golf every day, are you?

SANFORD: Definitely not doing that, but we do have a farm down that way and I will spend a little bit more time there. I don’t know. I really don’t know. I keep praying, God open doors and close doors. Because I can’t quite figure it out. I don’t have a strong hunch one way or the other, but just open doors and close doors. And I suspect He’s going to do that and give me a sense of where He wants me next.

SMITH: How do you want to be remembered? How do you or specifically, how do you want your time in Congress to be remembered?

SANFORD: As a staunch advocate for the taxpayer. As one who cared deeply about the financial solvency of our country. I think that we’re sleep-walking our way, maybe even not sleep-walking. Maybe we were running toward the largest financial crisis in the history of our republic. I think it will make the Great Depression look small. I think it will have damning consequences in terms of the value of the American dollar, in terms of future inflation, in terms of the savings that any of us may have tried to accumulate over the course of our lives. If you look at the history of open political systems, relative truth can destroy them. And patterns of debate certainly has an effect. But the other thing that more often than not destroys an open political system as they spend their way to oblivion. If you read Paul Kennedy’s book, The Rise and Fall of Great Powers, it talks about the way this has happened throughout the history of man. If you read Reinhart and Rogoff book, This Time It’s Different, it talks about again, that phenomenon over the last 800 years of financial history as it relates to government. We are walking our way into one epic level of financial storm. And I hope that my boys will look over in my direction, if I’m still around, and say, well, dad sure tried to do his part in preventing what’s coming our way.

SMITH: Congressman, thank you so much for being on the program. I’m grateful for your time.

SANFORD: My pleasure.

(Photo/Rainier Ehrhardt, Associated Press)

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