We Love Her, We Love Her Not: How To Feel About Jenny Sanford

When it comes to the Most Pressing Question Of Valentine's Day 2010, even the View isn't sure!

We like to have unilateral opinions on stuff. Especially, whenever possible, on people we don't know. If it involves their private relationships with more people we don't know, so much the better! Elizabeth Edwards: was a saint, now a harridan with feet of clay. Tiger Woods: sleaze with Greek tragic tendencies. At first, with the Sanfords, it was easy: he was blubbering, Lurch-like and slightly ludicrous. She, in the words of the WaPo's Ruth Marcus, was "a new and improved version of the betrayed political spouse — neither enabler nor victim." Composed, attractive, accomplished and refreshingly normal-acting, Sanford was, if not as "intriguing" as Barbara Walters might have had us believe, at least a break from the usual masks of humiliated suffering we usually see on the podium - if nothing else, we felt grateful. Her book, Staying True, has complicated things. (Even as it, maybe, absolves her from charges of standing-by-her-man.)


The Times, at least - or, at any rate, writer Jan Hoffman - is "pro." The memoir, which she characterizes as an "elegant evisceration," seems of a piece with a woman whom they describe as composed and, well, tough. The author, after all, descibes the soon-to-be-ex-first lady as "a frank, blade-thin woman with gray-green eyes, black suede high-heeled boots and a cuff bracelet made from the skin of an alligator shot by her eldest son." She comes off as nothing less than a new world Lady Marchmain, steel sustained by faith. And the ironies doth fly: Sanford is pictured in front of the "Jenny Sanford Wedding Garden," and declares she'll return to the governor's mansion for the "Mother of the Year" tea. "It's his loss," the piece ends. This knowing strength, then - or at least the willful embrace of potentially tragic ironies - becomes an alligator-skin "Live Strong," if you will.

But to the Washington Post's Marcus, it's another matter: Sanford is not tough enough. Far from the double-edged barb the title could be, says Marcus, it's pretty literal, since Sanford is: "well, the very victim I had imagined her not to be. The book is replete with instances of Jenny-as-doormat, from the very start of their relationship and continuing, excruciatingly, months after her discovery of his affair."

But if there's utility to the memoir (and I always hesitate to commit to this, beyond the financial) I don't think it's merely as the "how-not-to dating manual" Marcus describes. In fact, I think she puts her finger on it with her criticism.

So the disturbing question about Jenny Sanford remains: Why would a woman so obviously smart, well-educated, successful and attractive allow herself to be treated so badly for so long? Sanford's situation may be uniquely public, but she is certainly not alone in allowing herself to be undervalued — indeed, in undervaluing herself. I confess: I am better at diagnosing this tendency than I am at explaining it; I'll leave discussions of women and self-esteem to the psychologists, pop and otherwise.

Because, it's not just sad-sack dogs who "allow themselves to be treated badly;" and, indeed, it's thinking it'll never happen to someone attractive and accomplished that's a pernicious social myth. The Sanford and Edwards cases could, but won't, serve to point out a lot about human complexity, about marriage and politics and ambition and willful ignorance, both public and private. Instead, we'll all become gleeful water-cooler analysts and, like the ladies of the View this morning, nod sympathetically while obviously judging. Oh, and then read the book - as long as it's free under out chairs.

Southern Discomfort [NY Times]
The Victim I Imagined Sanford Not To Be [Washington Post]
Jenny Sanford Denies Calling Legislators [Politico]


Little Green Frog

Bill and Hillary Clinton are another marriage that comes to mind regarding complexities and politics.