Lessons of the Bob McDonnell Scandal

Wealthy donors are never your friends, and living within your means is only a rule for chumps.

Bob & Maureen McDonnell
Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen have been indicted on 14 counts of corruption.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

The devastating federal indictment of former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen on 14 counts of corruption is a cautionary tale for modern politicians achieving meteoric rises and even speedier falls. The indictment itself reads like something from the Real Housewives of Someplace Awful: the seductive tug of private jets, designer gowns, golf trips, Rolex watches, and Louis Vuitton footwear. In exchange for thousands of dollars of gifts, loans, and perks from Jonnie R. Williams, the McDonnells allegedly used the governor’s office to “legitimize, promote, and obtain research studies” to benefit Williams’ sketchy dietary supplements company, Star Scientific. According to the indictment, the first couple also failed to disclose loans and stock purchases, and when federal investigators began to probe, they allegedly tried to cover it up. According to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, a conviction could put the couple behind bars for decades and come with more than $1 million in fines. They will be arraigned this Friday in Richmond.

Already it’s clear that there are lessons to be learned from the career implosion of a man once touted as a contender for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination. The most obvious is that the Commonwealth of Virginia’s laughable historic claims that it requires no ethics laws because its politicians never get caught breaking its nonexistent ethics laws, can finally be put to rest. Currently, elected officials can accept gifts of unlimited value so long as they report them. And as the Washington Post editorialized Tuesday night, the proposed bipartisan effort to curb corruption in one of the most lax states in the nation is absolutely inadequate: “Virginia needs a muscular ethics commission endowed with the resources and legal authority to pursue real investigations,” the editorial board writes. “Virginia needs much stricter limits not just on gifts to politicians and their families but also on campaign contributions. Virginia needs meaningful laws limiting the way campaign funds can be spent.” Terry McAuliffe, the new governor, made ethics reform a hallmark of his campaign, and, just last week, issued an executive order setting a gift acceptance cap of $100 and allocating funds for a state ethics commission. That he plans to simply work around the General Assembly, which has slow-walked various ethics reform proposals for years, suggests that he takes the need for reform in the commonwealth very seriously. Now we all know why.

Another enduring lesson of the scandal, as Chris Cillizza notes, is that blurry ethical lines only become clearer in the rearview mirror—or in the pages of a 43-page indictment—and that wealthy donors are never really your “friends” in the first place: “It seems quite clear from what we know about the McDonnells and Jonnie Williams that Virginia’s First Couple became enamored with the sort of lifestyle that Williams provided them. A vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake! A Ferrari (drive)! Rolexes! The deeper the McDonnells got into the world of Williams—and the longer that involvement seemed consequence-less,” Cillizza writes, “the line that separates donors from the politicians they donate to (which, in truth, is always somewhat blurry) got erased completely.”

It’s counterintuitive, but maybe there is something about the heady charms of fast cars and couture gowns that makes them seem, by definition, ethical. Or more precisely, perhaps there is some sense that with that first rush of power and glamor, the very absence of all the lovely perks is, well, somehow unethical. “We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!” Maureen McDonnell lashed out in an email to an aide to the then-governor-elect in December 2009. The aide had suggested it would be inappropriate for her to allow Williams to buy her an inaugural gown. “I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done,” she pleaded, because when you believe yourself entitled to absolutely everything, it’s easy to justify everything you need to do to get it.

Perhaps another lesson is that fiscal conservatism is a myth for many who spout it most vociferously. The man who campaigned on fiscal-minded sobriety, largely charmed the commonwealth with his soft-spoken political style, and achieved hugely popular reforms on kitchen-table issues—including mass-transit reform, pension reform, and education—was fundamentally incapable of walking the walk when it came to his own life: He successfully governed like a sober fiscal conservative while he opted to live like he was Lord Grantham. Apparently the bare minimum one can manage, while still keeping up appearances these days, includes a pair of Virginia Beach houses, bought for $2 million in 2005 and 2006, a $1 million home at the Wintergreen resort, and an $835,000 home outside Richmond. Minimum. The gaping disparity between the sober, fiscally cautious stated GOP values by which he campaigned, and the McDonnells’ profligate lifestyle is a tacit endorsement of the notion that living within your means is only a rule for chumps.

Ultimately, it’s always useful to recall that the McDonnells are still innocent unless and until they are proven otherwise, and that Virginia politicians have been getting away with similarly grotesque ethical conduct for a long time; McDonnell is just the first who may serve jail time for it. But in an era of deeply polarized politics, broken government, and elected officials who are bought and sold for much more than McDonnell is accused of accepting (and happy birthday to you, Citizens United), one last important lesson might be offered up from the McDonnell tragedy: Bob McDonnell was a hugely effective governor in a riven state. While the rest of the nation struggled, he presided over a statewide expansion in prosperity and opportunity. Sworn in as a rabid social conservative, McDonnell gradually modulated his most extreme views (and the often radical views of his attorney general) on issues ranging from gay rights to transvaginal ultrasounds, and disappointed critics on the right with his transportation initiative and his committed efforts to restore civil rights to ex-felons. His new budget offers additional funding for mental-health care, higher education funding, and more money for K–12 and Pre-K education. Forbes named Virginia the best state in the U.S. for business in 2013 and McDonnell presided over two consecutive years of a budget surplus. Even when some initiatives—money funneled to charter schools—looked to simply be all about chasing the money, the fact is that homelessness is down 16 percent in the commonwealth, more than 170,000 new jobs have been created, and McDonnell oversaw significant adoption reform. McDonnell reportedly worked 14-hour days. He evinced none of the deranged ideological zealotry of a Rick Perry, none of the thuggery of a Chris Christie, and none of the gratuitous cruelty of a Scott Walker.

That a fundamentally temperate, deeply religious, family-oriented pragmatist and former military man could have been so completely and mindlessly swept up by the Gatsby-dreams of the 1 percent may prove to be the ultimate tragedy here. In a world of government by the Mitt Romneys, of the Mitt Romneys, and for the Mitt Romneys, Bob McDonnell actually wasn’t ever a Mitt Romney. His downfall lay in trying to become one. Maybe in the world of politics, there is no other way to be.