Opinion Extra

Herlong: Empty spaces

Did you notice the empty space? A lot of women did. It was just to the left of the podium. Back in July, while our pathetic, flaccid governor mouthed on and on and on like a trout gasping on the end of a hook, I was giving a standing ovation to the empty space beside him.

That's the space that had been heretofore filled by Mark Sanford's wife, Jenny. From that spot, for years, she had dutifully cast adoring looks as her husband uttered original political thoughts that she had probably scripted.

Mrs. Sanford has truly earned her stripes in the politic trenches, largely by ignoring the dictates of the political edition of Sun-tzu's The Art of War. She didn't just act wifey and bake cookies (although she really does bake them, a lot). She managed her husband's campaign, then became his unofficial chief of staff, cutting costs and stretching budgets along the way, all the while maintaining a laser beam focus on their family. Although their four young sons were necessarily trotted out for the cameras every now and then, Jenny never subbed out mothering them. She was and is the real deal.

But when she had to suffer a public humiliation that the rest of us only glimpse in occasional nightmares, she tossed out the political play book altogether. You know that chapter that says the politician's wife has to stand there beside the elected lout, looking stoic and vacuous in the glare of the spotlight of political scandal? Jenny shredded it.

She's had to write a new play book as she goes along. While she faltered a bit at first, confusing an Associated Press reporter with a therapist, it's a forgivable lapse. (I would probably do far worse if the tatters of my personal life were in e-mails published in print and online, perused by the prurient).

When a politician's wronged wife makes the unprecedented decision to put her family ahead of political expediency, she is sadly on her own. You cannot expect anyone in their inner political circle to support bizarre family priorities that are bound to cost them their jobs. She was expected to talk the talk about the kids, to be sure; that's in Chapter One of the old play book. But nobody in the governor's mansion was prepared for Jenny to walk the walk, right out the door, leaving quiet quarters and unfilled shoes behind.

Now the empty spaces have morphed into a vacuum. While Jenny was always the brains beside the throne, it becomes clearer every day that she was the only brain behind it, and certainly the only effective governor on the governor's mouth.

Sanford is blinded by his own ambitions to the writing that he scribbled on the wall, or perhaps still monumentally distracted by memories of his Argentinean paramour's "two magnificent parts." At this point, it looks like there is only one other person, besides Sanford, in the entire state of South Carolina who does not think he should resign, and that's his lawyer (a spicy irony, since Sanford is no friend to lawyers).

Jenny made her position clear, early on, telling reporters that the future of her errant husband's political career was "his problem."

But now, Sanford has become our problem. He is loath to become yet another footnote in the annals of political peccadilloes. So instead, he has become the guest who won't leave. He's the girlfriend in that "Seinfeld" episode who won't let George break up with her. He is the political lint in South Carolina's navel.

The empty space Jenny created is an inspiration to other politicians' spouses, and a warning to other narcissistic politicians who assume that the wife will be by their side, right or wronged. I also applaud her for leaving the door open to personal reconciliation, and hope they work it out.

Until Sanford takes the only unpaid hand still reaching out to him, and leaves political life behind him, nothing good will happen in South Carolina's economy. Whether he takes refuge with his wife, or makes another poor choice elsewhere, until he evacuates, we're stuck with a chronic vacancy in the governor's mansion.