A few days ago, when South Carolina governor Mark Sanford was missing in action and thought to be hiking the Appalachian Trail, I emailed a well-connected political type in the state to ask what was going on.
"All sorts of rumors are flying, from a Susan Boyle sort of meltdown to domestic issues," came the response. "Mostly the latter, or maybe a combination. Much talk of a girlfriend in the mix."
Sanford's news conference Wednesday afternoon proved the rumors right. But even after the governor's revealing and unscripted confession, several important questions remain.
The most serious is whether Sanford's frame of mind will allow him to carry out his duties as governor. His passionate love affair with an Argentine woman appears to be a classic case of a middle-aged man who wants out of his life.
"I don't hate my job," Sanford told Ginny Smith, the reporter who caught him at the Atlanta airport Wednesday on his return from Argentina. But Smith, writing in The State, South Carolina's most influential newspaper, says Sanford told her he was "close to hating it."
So if the governor is "close" to hating his job, is there anything about confessing the affair that would make his responsibilities any less onerous? Or is he right back where he was before he headed to South America?
A second question is why Sanford traveled to Argentina in the first place? Did he go to break up with the woman or well, who knows? It seems obvious that Sanford was in an escapist mood not a good thing for a man with constitutional responsibilities and he seemed to be running away from life in the state capital.
A third question is whether Sanford had any intention of revealing the affair to the public. At the airport, Gina Smith asked Sanford whether he had been alone in Argentina. "Yes," Sanford answered. Then, according to Smith, Sanford "cut me off, saying he could see where the interview was going and he did not want to discuss the situation further."
"I always will wonder if the story would have broken if I had failed to catch him in the airport," Smith concluded. It's possible Sanford was coming home under the delusion that he could keep the affair secret.
It was only after The State got in touch with the governor's office, saying it had copies of several incriminating emails between Sanford and the Argentine woman, that Sanford scheduled a news conference and confessed. In that news conference, Sanford was asked whether he had been alone in Argentina. "Obviously not," he answered.
A fourth question concerns Sanford's emotional state. Other politicians caught messing around have stressed how little their affairs meant to them. Sanford, by contrast, appears to be a man still deeply, if unhappily, in love. "What's so different about this, as opposed to Edwards and Ensign and Spitzer and all the other adulterers in politics is this was a more serious relationship," one well-connected South Carolina politico told me. "He was in love with her, and still may be."
A fifth question involves the false information put out by the governor's office while he was in Argentina. "There was an evolving set of facts out of the governor's office," another Republican insider told me. "Everything that came out of the office conflicted with something that was previously said." Did Sanford involve his staff in a cover-up? Or did he leave them in the dark for days? Neither scenario looks good.
The final, and perhaps most troubling, question involves Sanford's performance of his duties as governor. Sanford was known as a man who liked to occasionally get away by himself. "What was different this time was he wasn't responding to text messages or cell phone calls," the first insider told me. Will South Carolinians want to keep a governor who believes he can just disappear?
A number of social conservatives have said that Sanford's survival in South Carolina depends on whether he is able to reconcile with his wife. The Palmetto Council, an important local social conservative organization, issued a statement saying Sanford "told the truth with apparent contrition and contrition is a start."
That might satisfy some Sanford supporters. But when it comes to the serious business of state government, it's not nearly enough.