South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford, AWOL for a week as rumors ran wild about his whereabouts, admitted in a tearful and bizarre press conference Wednesday that he had been in Argentina cheating on his wife with a woman he romanced with longing e-mails.
The stunning revelation, made during a rambling appearance that was broadcast live across the country, prompted calls for Sanford's resignation from office and raised questions about who financed his jaunts to South America to meet with his paramour. The unexplained week-long absence also troubled critics who said Sanford put the state at risk by not giving staffers a means to reach him during an emergency.
"What I did was wrong, period," Sanford said in a stunning moment of unexpected honesty. "I spent the last five days crying in Argentina."
The southern Republican had been missing since June 18, with his wife, security detail and aides unable to explain where he was. An aide initially said the governor, who had been mentioned as a potential 2012 presidential candidate, was hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
On Wednesday morning, he resurfaced at an Atlanta airport where he told a local paper he had been in Argentina. But in the afternoon press conference, he admitted he had not told "the full story."
The longer version came out at the presser in which a tearful Sanford, 49, broke down as he recounted his recent whereabouts and acknowledged an affair with an Argentinian woman he has known for 8-years -- but began sleeping with a year ago.
"The bottom line is this: I have been unfaithful to my wife," said Sanford, who went on to apologize to his wife, four sons, paramour, residents of South Carolina and "people of faith" around the nation.
"I've let down a lot of people," said Sanford, a former Eagle Scout turned real estate executive. "In every instance I would ask their forgiveness."
"I developed a relationship with a dear dear friend from Argentina," he said. "It began very innocently as just a casual e-mail back and forth and advice on one's life there and my life here. But developed into something much more than that.
"As a consequence I hurt her, I hurt my wife."
Sanford's wife, Jenny, said in a statement that she still loves her husband but could not "maintain" her dignity if she didn't ask him to leave their home two weeks ago. She also said she did not know he had gone to Argentina because the couple had agreed not to speak during the hiatus.
Sanford is in his second term as governor, after having been a Congressman from 1995-2001. He recently made news when he fought to reject $700 million in federal stimulus funds, which the South Carolina's top court recently ruled the state must accept.
Sanford resigned as chairman of the Republican Governor's Association, which immediately named Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, another potential 2012 presidential candidate, as its new chairman.
"The news revealed today hurts all of us who have gotten to know Gov. Sanford over the years and so it is with regret that the RGA accepted Gov. Sanford's resignation as chairman," Barbour said.
Sanford did not offer his resignation as governor of South Carolina -- opening himself up to calls from State Rep. Todd Rutherford, D-Columbia, to take a hike.
"There is nothing left to save," Rutherford said. "There is no reason for him to remain as governor."
The admission also reminded critics that as a congressman, Sanford voted in favor of impeaching President Bill Clinton in the aftermath of the Monica Lewinsky scandal, citing the need for "moral legitimacy."
Sanford said his wife has known about the affair and they have been working through it for the past five months. Jenny Sanford confirmed in her statement that the couple sought counseling but could no longer live with her husband because "she felt it was important to look my sons in the eyes and maintain my dignity, self-respect and my basic sense of right and wrong."
The goal of the separation, she said, was "strengthening our marriage."
"I believe enduring love is primarily a commitment and an act of will, and for a marriage to be successful, that commitment must be reciprocal," Jenny Sanford said. "I remain willing to forgive Mark completely for his indiscretions and to welcome him back, in time, if he continues to work toward reconciliation with a true spirit of humility and repentance."
"Let me say to Jenny that anybody who has observed her over the past 20 years of my life knows how closely she has stood by my side, campaign after campaign after campaign," the governor said.
"I would also apologize to my staff because as much as I did talk about going to the Appalachian Trail, [I didn't], so I let them down by creating a fictionalized version of where I was going.
"And I want to apologize to anyone who lives in South Carolina. I’ve let down a lot of people, that’s the bottom line."
Sanford has broken off the relationship with the unidentified Argentinian woman, he said.
"There’s a certain irony to this," Sanford said, noting the relationship started when they'd talk about why she "ought to get back with her husband for the sake of her two boys.
"We had this incredibly earnest conversation, 'Could I get your e-mail,' we'd swap e-mails, whatever -- 'Hey I've got this issue that came up with my wife, what do you think?
"So there was this zone of protectiveness, she was thousands of miles away and you could throw an idea out or vice versa. About a year ago, it sparked into something more than that. I saw her three times since then, during that whole sparking thing."
Jenny Sanford begged for privacy during what she described as "a very painful time for us...as we struggle together to continue on with our lives."