The Campaign Spot

The McDonnells and Our Increasingly Insane Political Class

From the midweek edition of the Morning Jolt:

The McDonnells and Our Increasingly Insane Political Class

Ladies and gentlemen, I suspect you’ll understand that my kind words for former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell rank among my biggest professional regrets.

This is for several reasons, but preeminently, it appears the governor and his wife turned themselves into walking infomercials for the dietary supplements produced by one of the governor’s top donors. And they may very well have behaved in a manner you and I would consider… not quite sane:

A day earlier, a onetime aide testified that after then-governor McDonnell endorsed Mitt Romney for president in 2012, McDonnell’s wife sought out the candidate at a news media session in South Carolina to promote the dietary supplement.

Phil Cox, Robert McDonnell’s chief political adviser at the time, said that he put a stop to that plan but that Maureen McDonnell went on to talk up the supplement to Romney’s wife on a campaign bus. He said she told Ann Romney that the anti­-inflammatory supplement could “potentially cure MS.”

While Ann Romney, who has multiple sclerosis, listened politely, Cox said, he feared the episode would reflect poorly on his boss, who at the time was considered a possible Romney running mate.

“I was horrified,” Cox testified. “I thought it was a train wreck.”

How do you do that? How do you go up to a woman with multiple sclerosis and tell her that a dietary supplement produced by one of your top donors might cure her disease?

Are people crazy when they get into politics, or does the process of politics drive them crazy?

Every profession has their share of people who are “crazy”, and your garden variety of eccentricity and odd behavior is in the eye of the beholder. (In the first Blackford Oakes novel, Saving the Queen, a character declares, “Other people’s rituals always seem strange.”) But doesn’t it feel like, with increasing regularity, we hear about behavior on the part of elected officials that might get them steered to a psychiatric clinic, or at least counseling?

Yes, politics always had its share of Jim Traficants and Jesse Venturas. Some would toss Marion Barry into that mix, although I’m not sure mere poor impulse control and disregard for the law necessarily meet the threshold of “crazy” we’re examining. Jim Bunning’s behavior in his later years, perhaps. Mike Gravel’s campaign ad.

Perhaps Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee’s belief that Neil Armstrong planted a flag on Mars qualifies, or her assertion that “Today, we have two Vietnams, side by side, North and South, exchanging and working.” Or perhaps Rep. Hank Johnson expressing a fear during a hearing that the island of Guam could “tip over and capsize” if too many military personnel were stationed there.

How do we explain the behavior of, say, Anthony Weiner? Or David Wu?

“It’s the eye of the tiger, it’s the thrill of the fight, rising up to the challenge of our rival…”

I suppose politics requires a person to be particularly good at two sometimes challenging tasks: 1) being particularly charming and appealing to immensely wealthy people, so charming and appealing that they’re willing to write checks to your campaign and 2) being appealing to the electorate at large.

There’s undoubtedly stress, fear of defeat, desperation, a widening gulf between the private self and the public face held up for approval. Does this, at some point, wear down one’s mental health? Is shamelessness such a prerequisite for running for office that candidates and their spouses lose a sense of what’s abnormal human behavior? Or is political ambition by itself a bit of abnormal human behavior?

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