Politics & Policy

The Shiny-Object Fallacy

Bob McDonnell outside a Virginia courthouse in August 2014. (Win McNamee/Getty)
There are far more significant payoffs happening than the McDonnells’.

It was probably the Rolex that did it.

Maureen McDonnell, the former first lady of Virginia, on Friday was sentenced to a year and a day in prison for her role in the corruption case that ended the career of her husband, who was, at his political apex, considered a likely contender for the Republican presidential nomination. The case was centered on the governor’s relationship with Jonnie R. Williams Sr., a maker of dietary supplements who took Mrs. McDonnell on a Manhattan shopping expedition during which he bought her some $20,000 worth of clothes, took the couple on expensive vacations, and gave them the use of his vacation home. The most significant gift conferred by the couple’s benefactor was $120,000 in undocumented loans to Mrs. McDonnell and to a real-estate venture partly owned by the governor. He also bought a $6,500 Rolex watch that Mrs. McDonnell gave to her husband as a Christmas present. A Rolex “president” watch, which can go for about ten times that, might have been more suited to Governor McDonnell’s political star at the time; it’s a little embarrassing that an American leader of such stature could be bought off for so little.

The wise political entrepreneur uses more opaque methods to make his purchases. Hillary Rodham Clinton walked away from the inquiry into her remarkably successful commodities-trading career unscathed, in no small part because commodities trading is a complicated business — a hell of a lot more complicated than giving a guy a Rolex — and complicated stories do not generally capture the public’s imagination. It was suggested at the time that Refco, the firm that handled Mrs. Clinton’s trades, might have been assigning profitable trades to favored customers and losing trades to those without connections. It was accused of that in a lawsuit, and was later charged with that by regulators. Without admitting or denying guilt, the firm paid a $6 million fine to the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to settle the case. It would later find itself in even deeper legal trouble only a few months after an initial stock offering; in the end, its CEO and chairman pleaded guilty to 20 criminal counts, largely involving securities fraud, in what was at the time considered the nation’s second-most-significant corporate scandal, after Enron. During the time when Mrs. Clinton was making her extraordinarily profitable trades, Refco was cited for systematically violating margin requirements, and, according to that infamous organ of right-wing conspiracy theory, the Washington Post, it was at the time allowing Mrs. Clinton “to initiate and maintain many trading positions — besides the first — when she did not have enough money in her account to cover them.” There were substantial discrepancies between official records of the trades and the results in Mrs. Clinton’s account, leading the former chairman of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange to suggest “the possibility that some of her profits — as much as $40,000 — came from larger trades ordered by someone else and then shifted to her account,” as the Post put it.

If you ask people about the “Clinton scandal,” you invariable will get lurid stories about furtive intern fellatio in the Oval Office rather than lurid stories about the Clintons’ profiting from thoroughly dodgy commodities trading with the help of a thoroughly dodgy brokerage that was implicated in all manner of felonious shenanigans. Why? Because targeting the intern pool for sexual predation is like giving somebody a Rolex — it’s easy to understand. (How easy? The Big Bang Theory has a plotline about a high-earning wife emasculating her academic husband by giving him a Rolex.) Practically nobody understands commodities-trading regulation, including a great many people who engage in commodities trading. Albert Einstein is reported to have joked that the hardest thing in the world to understand is the tax code — remember that he lived in New Jersey — but the IRS has got nothing on the CFTC.

Sexual gratification and vulgar financial gain are straightforward propositions, and anybody who has ever been out on a Saturday night in Washington knows that our political class is not immune to such temptations. But they are far from the only form of personal gain — or even the most important one — for which elected officials and their underlings abuse the public trust and the public fisc. Political clout is to Washington what celebrity is to Hollywood: enjoyable in its own right, and very useful as a means to the more commonplace pleasures that got Bill Clinton and Maureen McDonnell into trouble. Bill Clinton does not need anybody to give him a Rolex: He has a fabulous collection of expensive watches, and the means to acquire any toy or bauble he desires, as a result of his having endured the great sacrifice of a life in what we still call, with straight faces, “public service.”

We largely take it for granted that politicians will use their offices for their own political aggrandizement: Every public-works project from sea to shining sea is festooned with signage reminding voters that it was brought to them by this governor or that mayor or this stimulus package. There is no political peon too insignificant to merit a highway sign: “Welcome to Queens — Boro Pres. Helen M. Marshall.” (Surely that sign has been updated to reflect the installment of New York City’s new Sandinista government.) We now take it for granted that the State Department will act as a political organ for whatever administration is in charge, and that it will be staffed with campaign flunkies such as Harfenpsaki. That’s all perfectly legal, of course.

It is wrong, but wrong in a way that does not involve sexual adventures or shiny objects, and so it passes largely unremarked upon. There is no bright line between using the State Department as an instrument of self-serving political communication and using the IRS as an instrument of self-serving political retribution. The Hatch Act of 1939, passed in the wake of a scandal that involved the Democratic party’s using WPA employees as de facto campaign workers and swapping WPA jobs and patronage for political contributions, is supposed to criminalize that sort of thing. But in the broadest sense, using government resources to further individual political interests is impossible to police — instead, we are dependent upon the prudence and probity of our elected officials and the people they appoint, which is another way of saying we are, insofar as this matter is concerned, screwed.

The McDonnells are prison-bound, and that is an excellent thing. Perhaps the good people of Virginia can get a good price on that Rolex on eBay. (Let’s hope they kept the box.) But there are commodities far more significant than shiny trinkets being traded among our political leaders and their enablers.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent at National Review.

 

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