The real measure of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell’s decline is that even now, with the jury in his federal criminal trial having wrapped up a second day of deliberations and a verdict expected any time, nobody cares.
Republicans don’t care. Democrats don’t care. Virginians don’t care. Marylanders, Washingtonians, political-corruption mavens, marital-scandal vultures, tough kids, sissy kids, even kids with chicken pox: Nobody cares.
Oh, there has certainly been coverage of the 14-count case against McDonnell and his wife Maureen. The Washington Post has dutifully given regular attention to the “biggest trial in Virginia political history,” often with two- and three-byline stories. But these reports have generated no heat. The details of the McDonnells’ marital-breakdown defense are also gelatinous: The then-governor sent the then-first lady a plangent e-mail complaining of “great heartache”; she in turn had a “crush” on a flashy businessman, complete with innuendo-laden billets doux. But these bits have been less juicy than wintry: The McDonnells are past middle age, and the crush object was jowly dietary supplement king Jonnie Williams Jr. NRO’s Jim Geraghty also gave it the old Alexandria try, noting the McDonnells’ place in the history of political eccentricity and examining the Rolex watch that figured heavily in McDonnell highlight reels (though it ended up counting for little in the full weight of the charges against the defendants). But even though Bob McDonnell is a Republican former governor being prosecuted on mostly Mickey Mouse charges by Eric Holder’s Justice Department, it hasn’t been possible to work up much outrage on his behalf.
Part of the problem is that, while it’s easy enough to imagine an alternate case in which the U.S. attorneys would not have bothered to bring a federal case against a Democratic governor (immunized prosecution witness Williams’ alleged gifts to the McDonnells amount to a mere $177,000 in gifts and loans, and that’s including the watch), not all the charges are negligible. The District of Columbia’s CBS affiliate gives the odds:
The jury has 90 pages of instructions to make sure it understands and 26 separate verdicts to decide.
Maureen and Bob McDonnell are accused of taking $177,000 in gifts and loans from wealthy businessman Jonnie Williams in exchange for selling the prestige of the governor’s office. There are 14 counts. The first 11, counts one through 11, deal with public corruption and conspiracy. The general thinking is that it is unlikely the jury will find either Bob McDonnell and Maureen McDonnell guilty individually on counts one through 11.
However, there are still two bank fraud counts. Bob McDonnell is charged in one individually and the two together in another. There is the obstruction of justice charge that Maureen McDonnell is accused of and that has to do with the Oscar de la Renta dresses she returned.
One of the loans, by the way, was related to a Virginia Beach real-estate business Bob McDonnell was apparently still taking an active interest in while sitting in Richmond. Legislation or no legislation, that’s no way to run an executive political office in the 21st century. Even California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a considerably more deft businessman than McDonnell, put his private affairs in a blind trust while he was running the Golden State into the ground.
And that may be the real reason the felony trial of the former governor of a not-inconsiderable state brings nothing but yawns. Bob McDonnell was a poor steward of his office, and he’s not worth getting exercised about. While it is now standard to speak of him as an erstwhile contender for the 2016 presidential nomination, the belief that McDonnell could carry a banner of any kind, let alone the banner of the GOP, was physiognomic at best: He really looked the part of a chiseled Republican governor, and the one moving aspect of his trial has been watching McDonnell maintain his mask of tight-lipped determination while his hair turns white and his shoulders give out.
There is certainly nothing in his policies that earns McDonnell credit as a fallen conservative hero. The most visible daily reminder of his time in office is a 2013 hike in the state sales tax that is ostensibly earmarked for vaguely defined transportation spending. Now Old Dominion, and particularly the rich Northern Virginia counties where dwell the kind of people who might take an interest in the trial of a former governor, is as inventive as Daedalus in coming up with weird new taxes on cars, real estate, groceries and all other things seen and unseen. But that sales tax increase is the one for which we can thank a Republican governor. Tax foe and newly minted burner Grover Norquist correctly predicted the tax would be McDonnell’s real legacy. (And the creative classes are already hoping it can become a model for a national tax scheme.) It’s too bad he can’t be prosecuted for that.
The unflattering nitty-gritty of the trial also indicated that McDonnell’s clean-cut demeanor concealed a very lackadaisical management style. Part of that may be pettifogging in the service of a defense narrative that required McDonnell to play a henpecked doofus with only the wooliest understanding of his responsibilities. But the image of absent-mindedness has been persuasive. In this respect, McDonnell does have something in common with Schwarzenegger: They are both Republican governors whose feckless leadership made their comparatively sure-handed Democratic successors seem like a relief. I have always sort of liked Jerry Brown, for his persistence at least. But it’s been a bitter pill to accept that the grotesque Terry McAuliffe seems to have some skill as a manager. (It’s also hard to imagine McAuliffe, who happily tells the story of how he left his post-natal wife in the hospital to attend a political fundraiser, asking for our sympathy over his marital woes.)
The governorship of Virginia may not be the most exalted office in the land, but it has been held by James Monroe, Patrick Henry, and Thomas Jefferson. While it is the nature of political offices to be mired in scandal, it’s still a shame that the scandal takes such a dull, low form. If the McDonnells turn out to have done Williams official favors in exchange for his largesse, they’re basically guilty of wanting to live it up a little too much during their one meager experience with real authority. (Virginia limits its governors to one term.) If Bob McDonnell is acquitted, he can’t even ask the Raymond Donovan question, because his reputation was taken, in large part, by his own attorneys acting in his defense. Either way, the saddest thing about McDonnell’s downfall is how little it mattered.
— Tim Cavanaugh is news editor of National Review Online. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.