I have refrained from comment on the Bob and Maureen McDonnell trial largely for two reasons. First, I wanted to wait until a verdict was reached, and second, it was just too depressing. Here we had for the first time in history the very real possibility that a Virginia governor would be convicted of a felony and sent to jail. For a state who boasts of having had the likes of Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe and John Tyler in its governor’s mansion, this was a severe blow to our reputation for good governance. But now that a rather emphatic guilty verdict has been reached, a few observations are in order.
Let me here confess that I have not followed the trial very closely. I basically relied upon summaries of testimony in the online version of the paper every two or three days. So I’m sure someone will feel the need to enlighten me about some aspect of the whole ordeal of which I am unaware that may help me to understand the proceedings in a new light. Having said that, as a husband and father I find it inconceivable that the governor chose a legal strategy that involved kicking his wife of 38 years to the curb and baring every sad detail of their twisted relationship for all the world to hear, including his five children.
Mr. McDonnell could have pled guilty to one felony corruption charge, which would have spared his family and us the spectacle of this trial. He would have been sentenced to a perfunctory prison term of two or three years in a minimum security prison and probably have served six months. Upon leaving jail he would have still had some measure of dignity left.
But something happens to men and women whom we exalt to positions of power in our system of government. They begin a slow withdrawal from the very people they are elected to serve. Before long they are surrounded by a coterie of yes men and career government people. They begin to live an estranged life where their day to day existence starts to reflect their “specialness.” Suddenly, men and women of better than average ethics and values have their judgment clouded by privilege. In the case of the McDonnells, they became convinced that having a “family friend” who provides them with lavish gifts to the tune of $150,000 is perfectly acceptable. The appearance of evil becomes invisible to them. Amazingly, behavior which would be pounced upon if discovered in a political rival becomes routine, to the point where Bob McDonnell, once the scourge of big-government malfeasance, can convince himself that accepting large financial favors from a hustling businessman was perfectly fine for a sitting governor of the Commonwealth of Virginia. Such is the debilitating seductiveness of power.
Poor judgment aside, Bob McDonnell’s legal strategy makes his financial misconduct seem like child’s play. Apparently, he thought it appropriate to sacrifice his family’s privacy and reputation upon the altar of his own vindication. Anything to avoid a day in prison, we are told. The idea was to convince the jury that the governor’s marriage was so irretrievably broken and dysfunctional that conspiracy was impossible. By revealing Maureen’s volatility and nastiness, perhaps jurors would feel sympathy for the heart broken governor. The jury was having none of it.
I watched his children marching into the courthouse, a beautiful legacy for any father, and I can’t even imagine what this has done to them. Their lives have been laid bare, and their wounds will never heal. Their father will serve his time. He will no doubt be a model inmate. After a few years he will get out. He will write a book, finally getting that big payday he has always coveted. Some high powered law firm on K Street will eventually hire him. He will survive this. His children will not.
When my wife and I brought two children into this world, we inherited a lifelong obligation to protect them from harm in so far as it was in our power to do so. Obviously there are many things we can’t protect them from. Skinned knees and broken hearts are unavoidable consequences of life, over which parents are powerless. But we can protect them from the big stuff, from having their family’s dirty laundry paraded in front of the world. That much we can do, even if it means doing time, even if it means our own humiliation.
For a man who made a political career on family values, who advertised his beautiful family like so many trophies in his commercials, and for a man who, if he is to be believed, still views Maureen as the “love of his life,” didn’t hesitate to throw her under the bus to save his own skin.