David Lauderdale

Mark Sanford, what are you thinking? From Appalachian Trail to a calling against Trump

Sanford: Trump’s ‘shithole’ comment makes Reconstruction Era monument more important

Sanford says Trumps ‘shithole’ comment makes Reconstruction Era monument more important
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Sanford says Trumps ‘shithole’ comment makes Reconstruction Era monument more important

It’s a calling.

For lack of a better term.

That’s how Mark Sanford characterizes his possible run against President Donald Trump.

Others say it’s “batty” or “dumb” or “vanity” to oppose a president who bullied Sanford out of Congress for daring to cross him.

Today, it would be easier to walk the Appalachian Trail backward three times than to beat Trump for the 2020 GOP presidential nomination.

But here comes Sanford. Maybe. Stay tuned, as another of his life’s dramas plays out before our eyes between now and Labor Day.

The perpetually tanned, 59-year-old Beaufort Academy graduate says he is “tipping a toe in the water, sort of seeing if there is any there there” to this race.

“In human terms, you’re initially sort of scared to death,” Sanford said Monday in a 40-minute telephone interview between his appearances on “Meet The Press” and CNN.

“You don’t want to be another human pinata in front of Trump. You don’t want to get banged around, but I do feel compelled. I feel called, for the lack of a better term, just to tell the truth, which is that we are headed for a financial train wreck, and we’re not doing anything about it.”

This new chapter of Sanford’s very public life started the day after his first political defeat. He lost the 2018 GOP primary for the 1st Congressional District to a lesser-known candidate backed by Trump. Before that, he’d won six races for Congress and two for governor.

That includes congressional elections after the event that still makes him famous, and may explain the vast national attention his potential presidential run has gotten. Sanford is known best for his week-long disappearance in 2009 while serving as governor. His staff was told he would be hiking the Appalachian Trail, but it turned out he was in Argentina seeing his lover.

After his first political loss, Sanford got a call from an old friend. “God has cleared your calendar for a reason,” he was told.


Sanford’s 2019 calendar looks like this: In January of this year, he got out of Congress. “In January and February, I sort of had a moment to get things organized and put things away and that sort of thing,” he said.

In April and May, he conducted eight seminars as a resident fellow at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. It was called “25 Years in Politics and Eight Practical Lessons Learned the Hard Way.”

Then people he identifies as buddies — longtime friends — began to push Sanford to seek the presidency.

Their push had a specific purpose: to make people talk about debt, deficits and spending at the national level.

“They say, ‘Mark, you have 25 years of our life invested in this process, what’s some number of more months?’

“The guys who have been pushing me on this thing, their point has been, ‘Mark, this gives you a microphone.’ You’re not going to be the president, but injecting this issue into the national debate is not going to happen unless somebody pushes it and makes some noise.”

Sanford said his reactions were: Thanks but no thanks, thanks but no thanks, thanks but no thanks.

“Initially, I said ‘no’ for a lot of different reasons, all of them fairly obvious,” Sanford said. “Now, I’m slowly moving ahead and might actually do it. Not in any way misunderstanding prospects in an electoral sense, but absolutely understanding math and the need to talk about debt.”

He said neither Republicans nor Democrats are talking about peacetime deficits projected to surpass $1 trillion over the next decade, and a national debt of $22 trillion and counting.

“It should be a complete worry to every working person, retiree or student in Beaufort County,” he said. “This financial storm would be more devastating than the next physical storm that hits the Lowcountry of South Carolina.

“If you look at the numbers, they’re absolutely frightening, in terms of its implications to your savings account, to your retirement account, your pension, your job. All the things that people depend on, particularly in a retirement community, are going to get zapped if we do not get ahead of the curve in dealing with numbers that don’t add up in Washington, D.C.”

Appalachian Trail

Sanford’s message has so far been carried through the media.

“Oddly enough, I’ve talked more about the deficit government spending in the last 10 days than I did in the entirety of the previous six years I was in Congress, because, inevitably, and this was one of my frustrations, you’d go on TV for the news of the day and you were inevitably responding to this crazy tweet from the president and you’re sitting there thinking, ‘I didn’t run for Congress to respond to some tweet,’ but that was the news of the day.”

If he runs, Sanford does not expect to get a microphone on a debate stage — or even in a ballot box.

“I don’t think (Trump’s) going to allow that,” Sanford said. “The Republican National Committee is controlled by the campaign, and so they’re taking steps to shut down the process. In New Hampshire, they’re in the process of shutting down a primary up there.”

He expects the same in South Carolina after S.C. GOP Chairman Drew McKissick told The State, “The last time Mark Sanford had an idea this dumb, it killed his governorship. This makes about as much sense as that trip up the Appalachian Trail.”

I asked Sanford if he gets sick of hearing about the Appalachian Trail, the source of endless jokes — but a bitter episode at home that ultimately led his wife, Jenny Sullivan Sanford, to leave the Governor’s Mansion with their four boys and divorce him.

“It will go with me to my grave,” Sanford said. “I’ve come to accept it. You may not like it, but that’s going to go with you for the rest of your life. The question is not whether you like it, the question is whether you learn from it. In major ways, I have.”

Sanford lives in the Old Village of Mount Pleasant, and jogs on the beach at Sullivans Island. These days he rarely gets to his family “farm” in northern Beaufort County, the 1,500-acre Coosaw Plantation that his heart-surgeon father bought in 1965.

Three of the boys are out of college and working, while the youngest heads off soon for his junior year at Georgetown University. Sanford broke off his engagement to the woman from Argentina in a 2014 Facebook post. Jenny has remarried, and Sanford said they are at peace.

“She’s gone on with her life,” he said. “She married a nice guy. It’s not like we’re doing Friday night dinner together, that’s not normal, but, yeah, it’s cordial. We share four great boys and we both try to add to their lives however we can. I would just say on that, time heals a lot. You can’t push for rewind/play in life. You wish you could, but that’s not how it works.”

He told the national media that he will not run for president if his four sons strongly oppose it.

The beating he’s taking in online comments has not deterred him. And, to date, Trump hasn’t joined that chorus.

“I just keep going back to one thing,” Sanford said. “I don’t want all that stuff dredged up for all the obvious reasons in the world. But I also know that this thing is going to blow. We’re playing with fire with the debt and deficits. This is the kind of stuff where you could actually lose a republic.”

Senior editor David Lauderdale has been a Lowcountry journalist for more than 40 years. He oversees the editorial page, writes opinion, and tells the stories of our community. His columns have twice won McClatchy’s President’s Award. He grew up in Atlanta, but Hilton Head Island is home.
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