Virginia sure ain't what it used to be

Former governor Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen face long jail terms if found guilty of corruption. So much for the home of probity

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Virginia is often called the “mother” of American presidents. Eight have hailed from the state, including six of the first 10 occupants of the White House – among them Messrs Washington, Jefferson, Madison and Monroe – and more recently Woodrow Wilson. It’s now safe to say Bob McDonnell will not be joining their number.

But that was far from the case a couple of years ago. Back then McDonnell was one of the rising stars of the Republican party, the successful governor of a vital swing state in presidential elections. He was on Mitt Romney’s short-list of running mates, and there was even talk of a McDonnell run for the top job in 2016 (here, it’s never too soon to speculate about White House runs: anyone for Chelsea Clinton in 2032?)

With his rugged looks, jutting jaw and sleek hair, he might have come out of central casting – as might his wife Maureen, a one-time cheerleader for the Washington Redskins football team. And his record in office wasn’t bad either. McDonnell was a conservative, but also something of a pragmatist, who had improved voting rights for ex-convicts, and even dared raise taxes to improve the state’s congested roads.

But now he’s likely to be remembered as just another sleazebag. Last week, a few days after McDonnell stepped down as governor following the sole four-year term permitted by Virginia’s constitution, federal prosecutors handed down indictments against both him and his wife, for influence-peddling and lying to investigators.

By the lurid standards of US politics, lubricated by the billions of dollars of private money raised to finance campaigns, this scandal is small beer. The McDonnells are accused of accepting some $165,000 (£100,000) in presents and loans from a local businessman named Jonnie Williams, in return for promoting the latter’s dietary products. The sum is a comparative pittance even against the $2.4m taken in bribes by the former Congressman Randy “Duke” Cunningham, the $750,000 of campaign funds siphoned off by Jesse Jackson Jr for personal use, or the $1m minimum sought by Illinois’ former governor Rod Blagojevich for the sale of the senate seat vacated in 2008 by president-elect Obama.

The reasons for the McDonnells’ downfall, say the indictments, are familiar: financial difficulties and a taste for the finer things in life, especially on the part of Maureen. “We are broke, have an unconscionable credit card debt already and this inaugural is killing us,” she wrote to an aide in a 2009 email shortly before her husband was sworn in, after the aide had warned her not to accept Williams’ offer of a new inaugural gown. Instead she told him she would accept a “rain check” – which she duly cashed in with a New York shopping spree at Louis Vuitton and Oscar de la Renta.

Even though the first reports of scandal emerged last spring, the sense of shock when the indictments came down was nonetheless palpable. This sort of thing doesn’t happen in Virginia, was the universal sentiment. And indeed, no governor of the state had ever previously faced criminal charges.

In Illinois, where four recent governors had spent time behind bars prompting jokes about a “governor’s wing” at the state prison, such behaviour might be standard operating procedure. And in Louisiana, too, where the magnificently corrupt Edwin Edwards was nailed after serving his fourth term as governor, for taking $3m in kickbacks for casino licences and other state contracts.

Prosecutors had been after him for years, as Edwards acknowledged when he quoted a Chinese proverb, that if you sit by a river long enough, the dead bodies of your enemies will float past: “I suppose the feds sat by the river long enough and here comes my body,” he said. But no one was waiting for Bob McDonnell’s body.

This after all was Virginia, home not only to presidents but to the first permanent English settlement in north America, where the notion of an olde England remains entwined with the state’s self-fostered image: a land where a man’s word was his bond, and gentlemen played by the rules. Just as used to be the self-fostered image, one might tartly add, of another somewhat tarnished institution called the City of London (indeed, the Virginia Company that founded Jamestown in 1607 was set up by City merchants). One product of this mind-set was the state’s ridiculously lax regulations against corruption, born of an assumption that tougher rules were simply not needed.

Until now, public office-holders in Virginia, governors included, have faced no limits on the gifts they could accept, provided they reported every item worth over $50. Gifts to members of their family need not be disclosed at all. McDonnell does not dispute that he and his wife received Williams’ largesse, but insists, “I did nothing illegal.” Nothing, in other words, was given in return – “no contract, loan, grant, funding, legislation, budget appropriation, regulation, board or commission appointment, or any other official state benefit”. Instead, prosecutors say, he lent the prestige of the governor’s office to help Williams and promote his products.

If that’s true however, this may not be an open-and-shut case. Lending the prestige of office, or promising to do so if elected, is the name of the fundraising game here. It’s often been said that what’s astonishing about American politics is not what’s illegal, but what’s legal. The US political system, the old line runs, is the best that money can buy.

Admittedly, accepting personal presents in return for policy changes is the essence of corruption. But campaign financing in America today is little more than legalised corruption, the special interest money that floods into candidates’ campaign coffers, in the hope of passing, or killing, laws that will make, or cost, even larger sums of money for those same special interests. On Friday afternoon, the McDonnells were formally arraigned on charges that in theory could mean decades in jail. But until the deeper rottenness of the system is addressed, theirs will remain a sideshow.

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