WASHINGTON — For the past couple of days, millions have been asking a bizarre question about the governor of South Carolina: Where in the world is Mark Sanford?
Wednesday, Sanford returned from his mysterious absence and said he had been conducting an extramarital affair with a woman in Argentina for a year.
"I've been unfaithful to my wife," he said in a news conference in which the 49-year-old ruminated on God's law, moral absolutes and following one's heart. He said he spent the last five days "crying in Argentina."
Sanford, who in recent months had been mentioned as a possible presidential candidate in 2012, said he would resign as head of the Republican Governors Association but did not say whether he would step down as governor before his second four-year term ends in 18 months.
It all started innocently, Sanford said, when he and the woman struck up a conversation eight years ago. She confided in him about being separated from her husband and Sanford provided comfort, counseling her to get back together for the sake of her two boys, and because marriage is sacred. They kept in touch by e-mail.
Then, about a year ago, came "that whole sparking thing," he recalled Wednesday afternoon at a riveting news conference. Suddenly, the relationship turned romantic and went into "serious overdrive." The couple met twice, both times secretly. The third meeting — last week — would not be so discreet.
Sanford disappeared from his state for nearly a week, 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 sneaked away from the governor's mansion in a state-issued SUV and jetted to Buenos Aires, where he spent five days with the woman. The affair is now over, he said.
Sanford, 49, a Bible-quoting social conservative and rising star in the Republican Party who harbors presidential ambitions, returned home Wednesday after being spotted at the Atlanta airport by a reporter to face a national television audience for 20 minutes, offering a rambling and at times tearful apology for his extramarital affair.
Sanford digressed about his boyhood adventures on the Appalachian Trail and airplane trips around the globe with just $100 of emergency money.
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. (The pigs, apparently, were not housebroken and made a mess of Sanford's suit and the regal carpet.)
As a congressman, Sanford voted in favor of three of four articles of impeachment against President Bill Clinton, citing the need for "moral legitimacy."
But Wednesday, Sanford 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. The Sanfords recently put the home up for sale, reportedly for $3.5 million, his spokesman said, because they wanted to build a "dream home" at the family's plantation in South Carolina's Low Country.
Jenny Sanford, 46, a former Wall Street executive, did not appear at the news conference but issued a statement saying they agreed to a "trial separation" with the goal of "ultimately strengthening our marriage."
Over the past year, Sanford said, the relationship "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."
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. The newspaper said it obtained the messages in December but did not explain why it waited to publish them.
On July 10, 2008, Sanford wrote: "You have a particular grace and calm that I adore. You have a level of sophistication that 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."
The day before, Maria wrote Sanford: "You are my love ... something hard to believe even for myself as it's also a kind of impossible love, not only because of distance but situation."
Sanford dodged questions Wednesday about his marriage. He said he would spend time seeking reconciliation, which he called "a continual process, all through life, of getting one's heart right in life."
Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.