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Missing the Mark

Politics | South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford's mysterious trip to South America has raised questions and created confusion

If South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford was looking to burst his own bubble, he may have succeeded this week. The governor is due back in his office today, but he'll have to answer for a mini-furor that has erupted in the state's capital: For five days, the governor was incommunicado.

Even stranger: After Sanford's office told reporters on Monday the governor was hiking the Appalachian Trail, Sanford arrived in Atlanta this morning, but not via Appalachia. Instead, he said he'd been in Argentina.

If you're confused, so are others in South Carolina. Here's the head-scratching timeline: On Monday, Sanford's staff acknowledged they hadn't spoken to the governor since last Thursday. Neither had his wife, Jenny, though she said she wasn't worried since her husband said he needed a few days away to work on a writing project.

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Democratic lawmakers and the state's Republican lieutenant governor demanded to know Sanford's whereabouts, saying he should be reachable in case of an emergency. Sanford's staff said he was hiking the Appalachian Trail and that he would check in, as he was able. Calls to the governor's cell phone went to voice mail and remained unanswered.

On Tuesday, Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said the governor had called. He was fine, though surprised at all the fuss, and would return on Wednesday. This morning, Sanford arrived alone at Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, apparently on a flight from Buenos Aires.

Despite the perplexing details, Sanford told reporters at the Atlanta airport the explanation was simple: After a grueling legislative session, he wanted a few days off. He wanted to go somewhere exotic. He wanted to get out of the bubble.

But is it acceptable for a state's top public official to simply disappear and be incommunicado, even to his own staff? When asked why staffers said he was on the Appalachian Trail, Sanford replied, "I don't know." But then he clarified: He told his staff he might go to the Appalachian Trail. Sanford's spokesman didn't immediately respond to requests for comment on the conflicting stories, but his office announced a 2 p.m. press conference.

Undeniably, it's been a brutal year for Sanford. When I interviewed him at the National Governor's Association meeting in February, he looked exhausted, but not just end-of-a-long-day exhausted. Instead, he looked thoroughly wearied by a months-long battle that was still unfolding.

Sanford had spent months battling President George W. Bush's bank bailouts in the wake of an economic spiral last fall. He warned against a "savior-based" economy. When newly elected President Barack Obama vowed to spend billions more on an economic stimulus plan, Sanford vowed to turn down federal funds for his own state, saying you can't buy your way out of the consequences of economic irresponsibility.

In the end, Sanford accepted some of the funds at the demands of South Carolina lawmakers, and last month the state's Supreme Court ordered him to accept another $700 million. The fight was over, but it wasn't necessarily a loss. Lots of Republicans hailed Sanford's dedication to fiscal responsibility, and some mentioned his name as a presidential contender in 2012. For a party struggling to find its footing and message, Sanford looked sure-footed and on-message. And though he often butts heads with Republican lawmakers in South Carolina, he's remained popular with GOP voters in a state that has proved an important battleground during the last two presidential elections.

A mysterious trip to South America probably won't help those prospects. South Carolina politicians are already asking legitimate questions: What if there had been a major emergency in the state, like a natural disaster or a terrorist attack? Who would have been in charge?

Sanford's spokesman, Sawyer, pointed out that the state's constitution makes provision for a chain-of-command response in the governor's absence, and added that governors haven't always carried cell phones. But some wonder: Wouldn't it be better for the state's top official to remain reachable by his staff?

Those are questions Sanford will face today. And for a politician willing to buck a whole system in the name of responsibility and accountability, his response is worth watching.

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the national political beat and other topics as news editor for WORLD.

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