People are expected to protect the people they love, which is why spouses aren’t compelled to testify against each other. It’s called spousal privilege. But some politicians operate under a different set of rules—call it “Blame the wife”—and as a strategy, it’s on full display in the corruption trial of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen.
McDonnell has been accused of taking more than $165,000 in gifts and loans from businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for government assistance promoting a health food product made from tobacco. A coterie of aides and political consultants helped the McDonnells project the image of the perfect family: Governor, Boy Scout, former Redskins cheerleader mom, five children, values up the kazoo. Behind the scenes, it was more like the Home Shopping Network. Emails reveal Maureen McDonnell lobbying Williams for an inaugural dress, eventually spending $17,000 of his money on a shopping spree in New York to cover her inaugural wardrobe and sundry other events befitting the first lady of Virginia.
There was also a Rolex watch for the governor, plenty of pricey golf trips, top of the line golf clubs for their sons, and a $15,000 catering charge for their daughter’s wedding. “They did what they thought they could get away with,” says Larry Sabato, founder and director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics. “And they almost did. If the chef hadn’t been fired from the mansion, none of this would have come out.” The ex-chef, accused by Maureen McDonnell of “embezzling” food from the mansion, went to the FBI, triggering its investigation.
The governor wants the two-to one-male jury sitting in judgment in Richmond, Virgina, to believe he had nothing to do with any of this questionable activity that he was busy working, and as he testified Friday and again Monday, his wife was a problem from Day 1, insecure about her new role and acting out like a harridan. He told the federal prosecutor on Monday that she eventually agreed to medication and mental-health counseling to curb her outbursts.
“The first spouse role is one of the most traditional roles out there,” says pollster Celinda Lake, who specializes in women and politics. “We make demands on these women we would never make of women in ordinary life. And any scandal that involves shopping gets covered more vividly.”
A political wife taking the heat for what are ultimately her husband’s transgressions is not a new phenomenon. Richard Nixon famously invoked wife Pat’s modest cloth coat in his Checkers speech in 1952 as dubious evidence that he had not taken improper campaign gifts. Hillary Clinton took the brunt of the blame for her husband’s failure to get health-care reform passed, and she was the primary target in the Whitewater and Travelgate scandals that plagued her husband’s White House.
“Political wives have been traditional scapegoats,” writes Myra MacPherson, author of the 1975 book The Power Lovers and this year’s The Scarlet Sisters, in an email. “Opponents accused Florence Harding of poisoning President Warren G. Harding, who died in office. During Watergate, Nixon and cronies accused Martha Mitchell of lying while ‘shooting off her mouth’ to the press when she was telling the truth…When bimbo eruptions occur, wives have often assumed the ‘Stand by your man’ position—Joan Kennedy, Lee Hart, and most noticeably Hillary Clinton, to name a few. Jeb Bush’s wife was able to ride out the torrent of publicity when she was fined for lying at customs after carting nearly $20,000 in jewelry and clothes back from France. Her husband, unlike female spouses, distanced himself. ‘She knew what she did was wrong,’ he said, ‘and she made a mistake.’”
“If he had taken the rap for her, he would have had the admiration of some people,” says Sabato. “But if you’re facing jail time, you do what your attorneys tell you.”
Bush’s response in that 1999 incident was downright gallant and graceful compared to how Bob McDonnell is throwing his wife under the bus. The difference, of course, is the jail sentence that looms for both McDonnells if the jury doesn’t buy their soap operatic defense.
It’s important to realize that as all the abuse is heaped on McDonnell for the way he’s blown the whistle on his marriage and revealed his wife’s faults is that she and her lawyers are working with him and his lawyers in tandem as a defense team. In other words, she’s in on the deal to portray her in the most unflattering light. “I’ve had so many people say, ‘Gee, what a cad, chivalry is dead,’ If he had taken the rap for her, he would have had the admiration of some people,” says Sabato. “But if you’re facing jail time, you do what your attorneys tell you.”
Even so, aspects of this case are puzzling. Why didn’t McDonnell take the plea deal that was offered? He could have pleaded guilty to one felony count and shielded his wife and family from having to air their dirty laundry. The answer is likely because the felony charge wasn’t specified, and it would have come with some jail time, which he clearly wants to avoid. So he decided to go for broke with the risky strategy that is playing out in the courtroom, and in public opinion.
Another puzzle: Since governors in Virginia serve just a single four-year term, why couldn’t he do what every other Virginia governor has done, leave office in good standing and then cash in? McDonnell was poised to be the beneficiary of a bidding war among the biggest law firms. He easily would have earned the millions to support the lifestyle his wife wanted. That opportunity has been squandered, says Sabato: “It’s hard to see how either one of them has any public life after this, and I don’t mean running for office, I’m talking about just showing your face.”
Maureen McDonnell may have signed off on the legal strategy. But the strained look on her face as she enters the courtroom, and the reporting on how she and her estranged husband never exchange even so much as a glance, suggest she didn’t know how awful the trial would get—that whitewashing his behavior would mean blackening hers and turning them both into objects of ridicule, not sympathy.