When Bob McDonnell burst onto the national scene in 2009, he was everything the Republican Party needed—a good-looking family man who stopped the Obama juggernaut in its tracks in the swing state of Virginia just 12 months after the party’s McCain humiliation of 2008.
A family-values social conservative (he got his JD from Regent University), McDonnell cleverly wooed Commonwealth voters with his corn-dog “Bob’s for Jobs” campaign slogan and a heavy dose of what appeared to be the TV-perfect brood: five gorgeous kids, including a daughter who served in the military in Iraq, and a devoted, smiling wife who had once been a Washington Redskins cheerleader.
McDonnell’s family was emblazoned on his campaign bus and commercials. At the inaugural ball after he won the governor’s race, the McDonnells slow-danced to “Looks Like We Made It.” McDonnell had even written his master’s thesis on the breakdown of the American family and ways the Republican Party could build it back up. “As the family goes, so goes the nation,” he wrote.
Underlying the entire McDonnell package in 2009 was a known truth about the governor among political operatives who knew him and believed in him—that unlike the divas and the bullies and the egomaniacs who litter both political parties today, Bob McDonnell was just a good guy. Staff called him “Mr. Honest.” Republicans in Washington called him “the Boy Scout.”
It was that tangible persona, coupled with McDonnell’s talent for winning elections, that instantly drew national Republicans to the new Virginia governor and made him easily believable as a potential vice presidential or presidential contender. Mitt Romney made no secret of his interest in having McDonnell on his ticket in 2012 and, with the Peanuts Gang hodge-podge that is the current presidential pack for the GOP, there is no doubt that an untarnished Bob McDonnell would be a leading 2016 hopeful for Republicans today.
But fast-forward four short years and the image of “good-guy Bob McDonnell” is dead, not because Gov. and Mrs. McDonnell have been handed his-and-hers felony convictions for public corruption, as they were Thursday, but because of the grotesque decision that Bob McDonnell made about how he would prove his innocence before a jury of his peers.
Instead of shielding his family from the accusations against him and making his case on his own, Gov. McDonnell’s defense team pinned the couple’s hopes for freedom on persuading the jury that Mrs. McDonnell was a lovelorn, possibly mentally ill, “angry,” “manipulative,” “unpredictable,” “deceptive,” “nut bag,” all descriptions of the former first lady that came from defense witnesses, including several of Bob McDonnell’s relatives.
How could the governor and his wife have been conspiring to do anything, the reasoning went, if their marriage was so mangled that they couldn’t even have a conversation?
But the defense never bothered to explain how Mrs. McDonnell’s behavior, which may have been every bit as atrocious as described, would have made good-guy Bob McDonnell think that it was normal, let alone legal, for anyone to be buying him a Rolex for any reason, as vitamin salesman and bad-actor Jonnie Williams did. And why would Maureen McDonnell’s state of mind make a semi-stranger picking up the tab for a portion of their daughter’s wedding seem acceptable under any circumstance? And was it Mrs. M’s “angry” tone toward the mansion staff that made Bob McDonnell get behind the wheel of Williams’ $160,000 Ferrari and smile for the camera?
The defense, which was endorsed by Bob McDonnell, sought to blame all of the bad decisions of the governor on the chaotic mind-set of his wife—when it was the governor, not Mrs. McDonnell, who was the elected official and it was he who had the responsibility to make sure that his family, even his “nut bag” other half, lived up to the office he was serving in.
McDonnell’s defense team says it will appeal the verdict, but nothing the ex-governor does in the future will erase the way his wife has been treated at the hands of his lawyers in the last several weeks. For a man to forgo a plea deal that would have spared his wife any legal action, as Bob McDonnell chose to do, could be excused if he truly believed he did nothing wrong and they would both be exonerated in the end.
But for a man to humiliate his wife, even a wife he doesn’t seem to like very much anymore, as Bob McDonnell has done to Maureen McDonnell, proves only one thing: There is no “good-guy Bob McDonnell” in this scenario. There never was any “Mr. Honest.” The Boy Scout that a people thought they knew does not exist.
There is only a Rolex-wearing, Ferrari-driving, throw-the-wife-under-the-bus 21st-century politician. And from all appearances, he’s going to jail.
As the verdicts were read Thursday, Bob McDonnell broke down into sobs and it’s easy to see why. The entire spectacle amounted to a pile of mini catastrophes—the breakdown of a family, the corruption of a couple that seemed so unlikely to succumb to the temptations of greed, and the besmirching of a governor’s office that McDonnell liked to remind people once belong to Thomas Jefferson.
At a 2012 commencement ceremony in Virginia, with the gifts of Jonnie Williams long accepted, but the consequences of that largesse yet to come, Bob McDonnell told the assembled graduates that the previous three years had confirmed to him something he had long suspected.
“I believe the world is hungry, even desperate,” he said, “for people of character with a heart of service to others.”