In the summer of 2002, President George Bush was campaigning for then gubernatorial candidate Mark Sanford. He apologized to the South Carolina crowd for his wife’s absence. He told the crowd that Laura Bush was “hiking.”

Back then, it was a reasonable explanation. Now, political spouses will never be able to hike again. Not after Sanford’s own bizarre six-day trek last week — which was purportedly through the Appalachian Trail until he was caught getting off a plane from a visit with his mistress in Argentina.

Today, questions about Sanford’s future linger after he seemingly abandoned the state, reportedly severing contact with his staff, state officials, and his family from June 18 until a singular call to his chief of staff early on June 23. After admitting the affair, it was revealed that Sanford appears to have created a diversionary trip to spend time with his mistress during a 2008 taxpayer-funded trade mission to South America.

The Story

The story was first reported early on Mon., June 22, when Sen. Jake Knotts (R-Lexington) told reporters that Sanford had been missing since the previous Thursday. According to initial reports, the governor’s staff and family didn’t know where he was and hadn’t heard from him since he left Columbia in a State Law Enforcement Division Suburban.

Spokesman Joel Sawyer’s first statement claimed the governor was “taking some time away from the office this week to recharge after the stimulus battle and the legislative session and to work on a couple of projects that have fallen by the wayside.”

The mystery was easily fed by the continued stonewalling from the governor’s office about exactly where Sanford was, but comments from his wife, Jenny Sanford, really gave the story legs. Jenny told reporters that her husband missed Father’s Day, she didn’t know where he was, and she wasn’t concerned.

“He’s writing something and wanted some space from the kids,” she told reporters.

It’s odd when you don’t tell your staff where you’re going; it’s bizarre when your wife is left in the lurch — and she doesn’t give a damn.

“It definitely gave the media some fodder,” says Jeri Cabot, a political science professor at the College of Charleston.

Late Monday, after political ears across the nation had perked up, the governor’s office released an update saying that Sanford was somewhere along the Appalachian Trail and that he’d told his staff where he would be and that he would be hard to get in touch with during his trip. The story seemed believable, even after bloggers pointed out that Sunday was naked hiker day and that the trail had received $600,000 in big bad stimulus cash.

The governor’s early morning call on Tuesday to his chief of staff led to a statement that he was befuddled by the attention and would be returning on Wednesday. Had this been the final update, that would have likely been it, leaving the story as a peculiar, comical excursion. Fodder for late night TV and a good excuse for constitutional reform regarding executive travel, but cause for little else.

The Turn

But news came fast on Tuesday afternoon. Even though the governor had reportedly spoken to his staff that morning, CNN spoke to his wife Tuesday afternoon and found out that she hadn’t heard from him yet. “I am taking care of my children,” she said.

Then a Greenville TV station claimed Sanford had been spotted at the Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport by a federal agent at some point, presumably Thursday. About an hour later, CNN had hiked up to Columbia and spotted Sanford’s missing Suburban at the Columbia International Airport. There was a sleeping bag, running shoes, shorts, and a ball cap in the car.

Asked about the find, Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer tempered his response, saying that, as far as he knew, Sanford was still on the trail.

The mystery had deepened, but the scandal had yet to ensue.

While Sanford’s affair was still unknown to most people, The State newspaper had received e-mails between the governor and his South American lover six months earlier, but reporters had yet to corroborate them. With the governor still MIA and questions mounting about his hiking trip, the paper sent a reporter to the Atlanta airport to wait at the gate for a flight from Argentina.

On Wednesday morning, Sanford stepped off the plane. But, at this point, he was unaware that he’d been caught regarding the affair and continued with his lies, telling the reporter that he went to Argentina alone, on a lark. When the reporter started pressing the “alone” part, he stopped answering questions and headed home.

The governor likely heard the e-mails had been leaked on his way back to Columbia — the paper had called his office and other sources to authenticate them once he was caught getting off the plane.

Hours later, he was in front of the national press, rambling on about his very real love for the mountains, followed by his awkward, intimate confession of a year-long affair and the recent deception.

The Fallout

If Sanford’s emotional details of how the new relationship sparked seemed like TMI, The State‘s release of the personal e-mails between the two was definitely OMFG.

From the governor: “I could digress and say that you have the ability to give magnificently gentle kisses, or that I love your tan lines or that I love the curves of your hips, the erotic beauty of you holding yourself (or two magnificent parts of yourself) in the faded glow of night’s light — but hey, that would be going into the sexual details …”

While betraying the obviously intense emotional and physical nature of the relationship, the e-mails would also play a role in revealing Sanford’s further duplicity, going back a full year, around about the time when the governor admits the friendly relationship “sparked” into an affair.

On Thursday, the Commerce Department released a detailed report of a South American trade trip, along with assurances that, even though Sanford diverted from the trip with a special stop in Buenos Aires, he was accompanied by a commerce official and the trip was for state matters. Citing “legitimate concerns,” Sanford released a statement Thursday afternoon saying that he would repay the state for that leg of the trip.

By Friday morning, it was revealed that Sanford had requested the Argentinian stop, and that his pleas to the U.S. embassy to organize an official meeting actually went against U.S. trade policy, according to the McClatchy News Service. Argentina had defaulted on foreign bank loans and was taking a pro-Chavez stance that concerned the Bush administration.

Even now, Sanford stands defiant. He refuses to resign as governor, instead pledging to tour the state and ask taxpayers for forgiveness.

Cabot says that will only perpetuate the crisis.

“It’s not going to work,” she says. “It would turn into a circus.”

The overall way Sanford has handled these revelations, most notably the press conference, may be the strongest indication that, even though Sanford ascended the political ladder, he never shook off his rookie status.

“Because he wasn’t willing to get into the guts of politics, I don’t think he ever learned to work in the political system,” Cabot says.

The recent stimulus fight may be an indication of how long it will take for Sanford to resign. Even when it was evident he lost, he refused to back down and save some political capital. Instead, he drove his principled stand into the ground. Where it was buried. Forever.