The XX Factor

Gov. Bob McDonnell’s Daughters Carry on a Family Tradition: To Save Dad, Blame Mom

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, leave the courthouse on Jan. 24, 2014, in Richmond, Virginia.  

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

Earlier this year, former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, presented a surprising defense against charges of conspiracy and bribery, arguing in court that he couldn’t have conspired with his wife to take illegal gifts, as he was barely speaking to her. As Dahlia Lithwick detailed for Slate back in September, that defense was an abysmal failure.

The “blame the wife” line required painting Maureen McDonnell with a series of sexist stereotypes: the gold-digger; the starry-eyed romantic; and that perennial favorite, the crazy ex. (Though the McDonnells are still legally married, they portrayed their marriage in court as so torn up that it was as good as done.) But portraying McDonnell as, in Lithwick’s words, “a frosty harridan with a roving eye and a lamentable inability to manage the staff” apparently made it too hard to also portray her as the mastermind pulling all the strings in the governor’s mansion. “I still cannot accept the defense’s proposition that she was somehow driving the bus when it looked to the rest of the world like she was lying under it,” Lithwick argued. Both McDonnells were found guilty, on 11 counts for Bob and nine for Maureen. 

Despite those results, Bob McDonnell’s supporters, including his daughters, are back at it. In a letter to the judge asking for leniency for her father at his Jan. 6 sentencing, Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky writes that it really was all her mother’s fault. Arguing that her mother “does not operate rationally,” Zubowsky makes the case that her mother was a social climber who harangued her father constantly. In contrast to her father, who Zubowsky describes as “the least materialistic person that I have ever known,” Maureen McDonnell is described as someone who has “always been concerned about getting discounts or freebees.”

Another daughter, Cailin McDonnell Young, is less harsh on her mother in her letter, noting that Maureen McDonnell “worked multiple jobs to support my Dad through law school.” Still, she does say that the testimony blaming her mother at trial “was the truth” and echoes her sister’s claim that her father is a simple man who “would frequently tell us not to get him anything for his birthday or Christmas.”

It may very well be that this is how things were in the McDonnell family and that Bob McDonnell is a decent man saddled with a greedy drama queen of a wife. After all, Maureen McDonnell did agree to this characterization in the defense strategy. However, it’s puzzling that the McDonnell children are continuing to push this narrative after it failed to protect their father the first time around. The problem is as it always has been: It’s hard to maintain the claim that a man is a self-sacrificing, good-hearted Christian when he is trying to save his own neck by abandoning his wife. It’s doubly hard to do so when the man in question is famous for peddling a deeply conservative form of Christianity that sells itself on sacrificing for marriage and family as the greatest of virtues.