South Carolina first family faces subdued yule

Associated Press
South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (left) and first lady Jenny Sanford (second from right) welcome guests at the Governor's Mansion in Columbia during a Christmas open house Thursday.

COLUMBIA --- In holiday seasons past, South Carolina's first family seemed like something out of a Norman Rockwell painting.


Gov. Mark Sanford, first lady Jenny and their four sons flipped the switch to light the towering Statehouse Christmas tree. They posed for a bucolic holiday card describing folksy family events such as the youngest giving a turtle a new home in a fountain at the governor's mansion.

But things have changed after the governor's June admission that he took a secret trip to Argentina to visit his mistress, whom he calls his soul mate.

The couple no longer share a home, but on Thursday Jenny Sanford still fulfilled her traditional role as first lady, welcoming the public to see the holiday decorations at the governor's mansion.

That's where her husband lives, but she and the boys stay at the family's beachfront home on Sullivans Island, 120 miles away.

Jenny Sanford and two of the boys skipped the traditional state Christmas tree lighting last weekend, while Mark Sanford sat between his two youngest sons. Even the tree is a little less festive this year -- because of the recession, the garden club that puts it up had to buy a shorter one than usual.

Mr. Sanford did attend the open house, arriving about two hours after it began -- and after the crowd had mostly thinned out. After the governor gave his wife a quick kiss, the two spent much of the night about 10 feet apart, entertaining separate groups of visitors.

The family does plan to send a Christmas card this year, although it is not in the mail yet, said Meg Milne, a spokeswoman for the first lady.

She refused to say whether it would include the traditional family portrait and said people would have to wait to see it.

In a statement released by Ms. Milne on Thursday, Jenny Sanford said she would be in Florida, where her parents live, for the holidays. It was not immediately clear if her husband will be with her, though he joined her there on the Fourth of July.

"I'm looking forward to spending the holidays with my boys and family and friends in Florida," Jenny Sanford said. Later, at the mansion, she added she was thankful for her supporters and said her plans included decorating the coastal home with some of the ornaments seen at the open house.

The governor would only say Thursday night that he plans "to have a happy holiday season."

While Mark Sanford's star has fallen -- he was once considered a 2012 presidential contender and now might not even get to finish his second and final term -- his wife's has risen.

Next week, she will be featured on a Barbara Walters special about the year's most fascinating people. She has landed a book contract and set up a Web site.

Because she has managed her husband's past campaigns, some pundits speculate that she is laying the groundwork for her own future in politics, but she told The Associated Press earlier this week that she is not interested in running for office.

"It's mere speculation," said Mrs. Sanford, a Georgetown-educated former Wall Street vice president. "Right now I'm focused on my family and the future of my children."