Have you ever driven past a car crash and craned your neck to gawk? Felt guilty about indulging your morbid curiousity but did it anyway?
What the heck, let’s check out the wreckage otherwise known as Mr. and Mrs. Bob McDonnell, the former First Family of Virginia. If you’re perversely drawn to petty sleaze, if you find it fascinating, then you cannot possibly avert your eyes.
As recently as this winter, Bob was the governor, a soaring Republican star once short-listed by Mitt Romney to be vice president of the United States. Maureen was the smiling spouse in all the political family photo-ops. But how far they’ve fallen – and so fast! This week they’re on trial in federal court (Bob is the first Virginia governor ever to be put on trial), charged in a 14-count indictment with personally enriching themselves in tacky ways that bring to mind something that Humphrey Bogart said in Casablanca.
I’ll quote Bogie when I conclude. For now let’s just crane our necks, and ponder anew the role of stupidity in the human condition. After three days of sworn testimony, here’s some of what we’ve learned so far:
The chef at the gubernatorial mansion tipped federal authorities that there was something weird about the First Family’s relations with a vitamin salesman/hustler named Jonnie Williams. The chef was apparently right. Jonnie was doing lots of nice things for the McDonnells, and, in exchange, the McDonnells tried to do nice things for Jonnie – like greasing the wheels for Jonnie with state officials. That’s what Jonnie says. He’s testifying for the prosecution. He says the whole thing was “a business deal” to help him hawk a new dietary supplement.
Jonnie spent $15,000 on daughter Cailins’s wedding. He paid for daughter Rachel’s Florida vacation air fare (Rachel’s friend, too), and got them passes to a private beach club. He gave Bob a $6500 Rolex watch. He gave son Bobby a set of fancy golf clubs. He sent the family on all-expense paid vacations and golf outings. He chartered them a yacht, and footed the $1300 bill. He flew the kids around on his private jet. He let Bob tool around in his Ferrari.
And he took Bob’s wife shopping in New York City, bought her all kinds of designer clothes (minimum price tag, $19,000). This is where things really get weird. According to Bob’s defense lawyer, Maureen was besotted with Jonnie. Maureen whined to Jonnie about how she and Bob were supposedly broke. Maureen whined to Jonnie about her marriage. Bob’s lawyer told the jury, “She was angry for not having enough money, she was angry at (Bob) for not spending enough time at home with her, and she hated him for not being available.”
So you may be asking yourself: Wait a minute, aren’t the McDonnells on trial together? Why is Bob attacking his wife in court? Ah yes, now we’ve come to the really weird part. Bob and Maureen have separate legal teams. Bob’s defense is that he never did gubernatorial favors for Jonnie in exchange for gifts – that, instead, this whole mess was Maureen’s fault. Think about that. Apparently Bob’s strategy for saving his own butt is to throw his wife under the bus.
But the short-listed vice-presidential prospect did apparently try to swing some favors for Jonnie. According to prosecutors, Bob arranged for Jonnie to pitch his dietary supplement to Bob’s health secretary; another time, Bob told his policy director to clear some time for Jonnie, to talk about helping Jonnie’s business endeavors. But the policy director replied in an email, “We need to be careful with this issue” – a stance echoed by other state officials. Apparently Bob’s aides were more concerned than Bob about the fact that Jonnie was under investigation (in a separate case) for alleged securities and tax violations.
OK. Two quick things:
1. If Mitt Romney had tapped Bob for veep and had won the ’12 election, Mitt might well have been saddled with his very own Spiro Agnew. (If you don’t get the reference, read up.)
2. When Jonnie was on the stand yesterday, talking about his private jet, he said this: “You want to make sure you have access (to politicians). The airplane allows you to do that.” There it is, the quintessence of politics as usual. If you want access to your elected leaders, get your own airplane.
Bob rode that plane a lot, with his Rolex watch and his designer-clothed wife. More tacky factoids will likely surface in the multi-week trial. But what’s tackiest of all is that Bob and Maureen could be bought off so cheaply. Which brings me to Casablanca, that classic treatise on slippery morals. I’m thinking of a line early in the film. It’s when Bogie says, “I don’t mind a parasite. I object to a cut-rate one.”
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