It's a subdued holiday season for SC first family

AP News
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Posted: Dec 03, 2009 8:38 PM

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 like their youngest giving a turtle a new home in a fountain at the governor's mansion.

Oh, how 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 shares 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.

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

Hours earlier, lawmakers met for a third time to debate whether to recommend the full legislature impeach him. An investigation by the State Ethics Commission found Sanford may have violated state ethics laws on travel and campaign finances, and lawmakers are reviewing a resolution accusing him of abandoning the state when he went to Argentina.

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 wouldn't say whether it would include the traditional family portrait.

In a statement released Thursday, Jenny Sanford said she would spend the holidays in Florida, where her parents live. 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 she plans to decorate the coastal home with some of the ornaments seen at the open house.

The governor said his holiday plans are a family matter, but that he plans "to have a happy holiday season."

He pointed out a smaller Christmas tree decorated with ornaments the boys made _ shotgun shells, alligator bones and sanddollars, with a pheasant on top _ which he said was a nod to their coastal home.

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

Visitors wished her and the boys well and thanked her. Some women said they came specifically to show their support for her.

Seeing the first lady overwhelmed 61-year-old Lougenia Hill to tears. Hill gave her a big hug and whispered, "It'll be OK."

"She's welcoming everybody and not showing any sign of all that's going on," the Columbia resident said afterward, adding that she hadn't expected the first lady to attend the open house. "She's inspired other women to be strong. I am so proud of her."

Next week, Jenny Sanford 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 Jenny Sanford, a Georgetown-educated, former Wall Street vice president. "Right now I'm focused on my family and the future of my children."

Jenny Sanford has closely guarded her family's privacy in recent months. She found out about the affair in January, when she discovered a letter her husband had written to the other woman.

It didn't become public until months later, when he disappeared for five days to rendezvous with his lover in Argentina. His staff told reporters he was hiking the Appalachian Trial.

Jenny Sanford's memoir, to be published by Ballantine Books next May, will describe her dealings with this year's difficulties.

"Hopefully it will be a book that will be helpful to women and other folks throughout the country and I look forward to getting it out there," she told the AP in October.

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Smith reported from Charleston, S.C.