The soap opera that played out in Richmond these last weeks and ended with the convictions of former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, on multiple counts of fraud and conspiracy charges is a tragedy for them, their children and the voters of Virginia.
By most objective standards, McDonnell did a good job as governor. He took a deficit left by his predecessor and turned it into a surplus without raising taxes or cutting essential services. But a jury found that he and his wife also served themselves, using his office to get sweetheart loans and other favors in exchange for access and the promotion of a commercial product by their benefactor, Jonnie Williams, who avoided indictment by testifying for the prosecution.
Some pundits have rightly noted that a man who preaches about strong families and honesty should be expected to live by those standards. Even so, there is a double standard in politics that often allows those who have engaged in similar or worse behavior not only to escape prosecution but to win re-election.
The modern gold standard for selling one’s office belongs to former President Bill Clinton. As “NBC Nightly News” anchor Tom Brokaw noted on a Feb. 25, 1997, broadcast: “1600 Pennsylvania Avenue turned out to be the most expensive bed and breakfast in North America.” A sound bite showed President Clinton denying the Lincoln bedroom had been “sold.”
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Correspondent Jim Miklaszewski said in his report: “White House documents, some in the president’s own handwriting, indicate the Lincoln bedroom was at least on the market to major political donors. Under increasing public pressure, the White House released the names of 958 visitors who slept at the White House during Clinton’s first term. Most were family friends, but many were major political contributors, like computer magnate Steve Jobs, who gave $150,000.
“Documents appear to support allegations the Democrats turned the Clinton White House into a political fundraising machine. In one 1995 memo, Democratic Finance Chairman Terry McAuliffe (McDonnell’s successor as Virginia governor) recommends the president meet with major supporters for ‘breakfast, lunch or coffee’ to ‘energize them for the upcoming year.’
“And in a 1996 memo, Clinton campaign chairman Peter Knight tells the White House that Democrats expect to raise $350,000 from just one White House coffee with the president. As bad as it may look, White House spokesman Mike McCurry insists it’s still all perfectly legal.”
If so, perhaps The Hatch Act and related federal statutes aimed at preventing corruption need strengthening.
Visit http://www.crewsmostcorrupt.org/mostcorrupt at the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington website for one organization’s opinion about some other politicians who have (so far) escaped prosecution for behavior that is in some cases worse than the McDonnells’.
None of this is to excuse what the McDonnells are convicted of having done (they will appeal), but only to offer some perspective.