Back From Lunch With Jenny Sanford

Jenny Sanford remains something of a cipher: self-revelatory yet controlled, gracious yet steely, emphasizing her traditional values. And today, several among a room full of career women, one of which was me, wanted to know if she's a feminist.

At a lunch today hosted by More magazine, Sanford cheerfully submitted to about two hours of questions from a room of about a dozen women (and one silent man). Having steered away from the spotlight at first, Sanford's release of a memoir, Staying True, as well as leaving her husband, South Carolina governor Mark Sanford, has led her back into the arms of the press.

"It reminds me of being in campaign mode," she said, when I asked.

But there are things, she said, she still chooses not to divulge, such as the content of the letter through which she discovered her husband's affair, or later, when asked, whether her sons are in therapy.

Asked to compare herself with Silda Spitzer's decision to stand next to her husband at the press conference, she said wasn't asked to stand by Sanford, and she wouldn't have done it if he did.

Later on, she said, "I never thought of myself as a political wife. If someone had asked me what my most important role was, first lady would be like, tenth."

In part that's because she says she's not particularly interested in politics, though she's been approached multiple times in the last year and asked to run for office, including for an open congressional seat, and to run campaigns as she did for Sanford. She's turned them all down, in part because of concern for her sons, and because she just isn't interested. "Mark wakes up every morning passionate about government spending. I've never woken up that way," she said dryly.

The publisher of More asked her if it was difficult to make a life with and sleep with someone whose political decisions you might disagree with, but Sanford said that on her husband's major issue, fiscal conservatism, they were aligned, and anything else they could disagree about respectfully. "He's not an angry, in your face politician," she said.

Although she has said repeatedly that her husband's personal application of fiscal conservatism — being really, really cheap — didn't bother her, she also has been slyly skewering it.

"I am wearing a necklace he gave me that he didn't take back," she said, referring to a story in her book about a diamond necklace her husband gave her then returned because it was too expensive. "This is a guy who collects things out of dumpsters," she added.

She repeated her message that her husband had some work to do on returning to what she had believed were their shared values. "I know who I am. His actions don't reflect on me....I'm not responsible for Mark Sanford. He is."

Among the many emails she has gotten from women who identify with her situation, Sanford has also heard from men whose wives had left them. "Maybe they didn't have a place to talk about that," she mused. From the women, she said, "The more Christian-based emails encouraged me to stay with him. The ones that said, 'Kick him out,' didn't have a Bible verse in them."

As for feminism, she didn't repudiate the word, but didn't embrace it either. She called herself traditional. She said she hadn't "really thought about" being a feminist icon. "I'm very old-fashioned in my way," she said, and talked about juggling a family and career, and how she had put her family first while Mark was busy with his political career. And she said that while she was happy if her book "empowered" women, "I didn't mean for any of this to be prescriptive."

Her publisher, Libby McGuire, jumped in, perhaps sensing that there was a gap to be bridged between the women in the room and the woman whose book she'd published. McGuire said that when she first started talking to Sanford, she found it hard to understand why Sanford had given up her job as a vice president at Lazard Freres in New York to be a Southern mom.

"But she made these choices," McGuire said. "She saw what he was offering her and she chose it... I see you as a feminist, because you drove the bus then, and you drive the bus now."

"Well," said Sanford, "Not in a my way or the highway way.... I did it in a traditional way."

As a dessert of sorbet and berries arrived, McGuire announced that she had just gotten an email informing her that after only two days out, Staying True would debut at #8 on The New York Times bestseller list. For what seemed like the first time, Jenny Sanford grinned.