The Tragic Downfall of Bob McDonnell and What It Can Teach Us

Bob McDonnell

Photo courtesy of The Associated Press

By Jack Minchew.

Throughout Western history, humans have been particularly drawn to tragedies. From Ancient Greece to Elizabethan England to the modern age of film, tragic stories have continued to fascinate us, perhaps because, at its heart, the downfall of the relatable protagonist offers the audience some of the most powerful human feelings: hope, sorrow, and disappointment. If these are, in fact, signatures of a tragedy, then a prime example of modern tragedy lies in the form of Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell.Once considered a rising star in the Republican Party, McDonnell was a widely respected governor of a well-managed and seemingly exemplary state. In 2009,after running a nearly flawless campaign in a swing state that had elected Barack Obama only one year before, McDonnell defeated his Democratic opponent by a landslide 17 percent. The next January, McDonnell assumed the governorship of Virginia, a position once held by founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, and Douglas Wilder, the first African-American state governor since reconstruction. 

Once in office, McDonnell cultivated the persona of a pragmatist, overseeing a drop in the state unemployment to one of the lowest in the nation while posting budget surpluses every year. He satisfied conservatives, signing laws restricting abortions and preserving the state’s ban on gay marriage. He worked with Democrats, passing bi-partisan transportation funding, giving raises to teachers, and restoring civil rights to former felons. In a pivotal swing state, He was one of the most popular governors in the nation. 

National Republican groups took notice. Before long, McDonnell was giving the Republican response to President Obama’s State of the Union speech and travelling across the US, raising money for the conservative cause. In 2011, he was voted chair of the Republican Governor’s Association, one of the most powerful Republican organizations in the country. In 2012, he was a key surrogate for the Romney campaign, and was mentioned as a potential vice presidential pick. 

But in March of 2013, everything began to fall apart. A series of Washington Post articles uncovered the seemingly inappropriate connections that McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, had to Jonnie Williams, an executive of the nutritional supplement company Star Scientific. Those articles ballooned into revelations that the McDonnells had received over $135,000 in gifts such as designer clothing and Rolex watches, as well as loans to offset the McDonnells’ considerable debt. By January of 2014, only days after the governor left office, the McDonnells were indicted by a federal grand jury for fraud and extortion. 

Federal prosecutors alleged that both Bob and Maureen McDonnell abused their positions as governor and first lady by allowing Williams special access to government officials and holding events for Star in the Governor’s mansion. Charged with honest services fraud, among other crimes, the McDonnells’ defense strategy rested on their assertion that the couple’s relationship was in such disrepair that they could not possibly have conspired together in such a manner. Central to their argument was the idea that Bob spent so much time on his gubernatorial responsibilities that he neglected his wife. She then responded by growing closer Jonnie Williams, believing that he was her friend. Nine months after the indictments were handed down, both were found guilty of all but two counts. 

It would be difficult to overestimate the degree to which these convictions shook Virginia. Cloaked in the memory of great Virginian statesmen like Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry, and blessed with a tradition of responsible, non-partisan governance, a sense of moral superiority has long pervaded the halls of the General Assembly, a building designed by Jefferson himself. This sense of moral superiority, now fractured, has left Virginians disheartened and disillusioned with the same state government which was once viewed with such pride. Yet the downfall of Bob McDonnell, a fall from grace so epic in scale that many have compared it to a Shakespearean tragedy, bears simple lessons that resonate far beyond the borders of the Old Dominion. 

Politicians are no different from the rest of us. They are not necessarily bad people; nor are they necessarily good people. They neglect family members. They make unwise financial decisions and face debt. And they are just as susceptible to the human tendency of greed as anyone. 

None of this goes to excuse McDonnell. When one accepts a position of public trust, he or she implicitly accepts the higher standards of conduct that accompany the position. The jury ruled that McDonnell breached that trust, and he will be punished as such. A tragic hero is not always righteous, or innocent, or maligned. Despite the protestations of some of his supporters, Bob McDonnell was a victim of none save himself. 

Americans have developed a tendency to view all politicians as shady, self-serving individuals, a perception only abetted by scandals such as this. Just as Virginians have learned that regardless of their state’s history, their representatives are not necessarily better people than the average Virginian, Americans as a whole must recognize that their politicians are not necessarily worse than the average American.

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