Peter St. Onge

Our drive to have something better

There’s a picture from Bob McDonnell’s corruption trial that explains as well as anything else why the former Virginia governor heard guilty 11 times from a jury this week.

It was taken in July 2011, as McDonnell was returning home from a vacation at the lake home of a Virginia businessman, Jonnie R. Williams. McDonnell is in the driver’s seat of Williams’ Ferrari California convertible.

The top is down. His sunglasses are on. He is smiling a smile we all can recognize.

“Oh yeah,” that smile says. “I could get used to this.”

You know this look. You probably know this feeling. Maybe you had it while reclining in front of your neighbor’s big-screen TV. Maybe you felt it on your friend’s boat at the lake, on that gorgeous fall day, beverage in hand. Oh yeah, you thought.

And maybe: Why not me?

McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were convicted of corruption for accepting more than $100,000 in gifts and loans in exchange for political favors. There’s a lot of clutter in their story – a troubled marriage, perhaps an affair between the governor’s wife and the businessman who lavished gifts on both of them.

But at its core this is a simple and very old tale. Bob McDonnell wanted something most all of us want, no matter our means, no matter what we already have. He wanted more.

This isn’t necessarily about greed. Look at the list of gifts McDonnell received. Trips to pricey golf clubs. A flight to the Final Four. Expensive catering for his daughter’s wedding. These were not things that were six flights up from McDonnell’s income level. They were just slightly unattainable, which might have been what did McDonnell in. Maybe they were things he thought a governor should have.

That’s the thing about “more.” Most of us aren’t really that tempted by the crazy possessions, the Ferraris. It’s the things that tug gently at us, the things just close enough to our financial orbit.

And wanting isn’t an awful thing, really. In fact, our lack of contentment is something Americans like to celebrate. We like when people strive for better jobs. We want people to reach for better things. It’s that hunger that made Bob McDonnell a successful lawyer and Republican star-in-the-making.

But that yearning can also be destructive. It prompts us to take shortcuts and make wrong choices. It causes healthy companies to squeeze themselves endlessly for higher profit margins.

Remember the reason for the housing collapse? It was in part because two U.S. presidents wanted more Americans to realize the dream of homeownership. So consumers signed up for loans they couldn’t afford. Brokers looked the other way at the risk. Bankers sold the bad mortgages for short-term, toxic profits.

Everyone wanted a little more. And not all of it was greed.

Of course, that’s not what we’re thinking about on the friend’s boat, or in front of the neighbor’s big-screen.

We’re thinking that if we stretched things a bit financially, or if we borrowed a little more, maybe we could have some of what others have. Maybe we could have what we deserve.

And sometimes, that’s exactly what we get.