Gov. Bob McDonnell has, apparently, mistaken Judge James R. Spencer for his marriage counselor.
The former governor of Virginia seems to have forgotten he is on trial for public corruption and is busy ticking off the slights, arguments, miscommunications, huffs and petty scorekeeping of his marriage before the Richmond jury and the ever-patient Judge Spencer as though they were all there to witness his couples counseling sessions.
On Thursday, McDonnell proclaimed that his decision to drag his marriage through the mud was a tough one. “It’s going to be very, very difficult,” McDonnell testified, his voice growing almost inaudible. “It’s going to be hard for me to talk about.”
Of course, McDonnell could have avoided putting his marriage under a microscope if he’d manned up and taken the plea agreement offered to him last year. He would have pleaded guilty to just one felony fraud charge that was unrelated to corruption in office and would have spared his family any legal involvement.
Instead McDonnell apparently prefers to flay Maureen McDonnell’s character in public, gambling that the majority (8 to 4) male jury will nod their heads in agreement and feel sorry for him because of his “nutbag” wife.
First, he used Maureen as a campaign prop to get him into office. Now he’s using her to try to stay out of jail. Can’t the jury see what he’s been dealing with?
• Maureen sullied his big day when he was elected governor and President Obama called to congratulate him. “She wasn’t as happy as I was about the result,” he testified Wednesday.
• She “was a little surprised, maybe disappointed” by the salary he made when he started out as a noble prosecutor.
• She had numerous dilemmas about what to wear. (Unique, of course, among American women.)
• She was “tense” about her upcoming role as first lady.
• According to her own chief of staff, the former first lady was a “nutbag.”
Wait a minute.
Isn’t this the same woman he praised for doing the heavy lifting of raising five children while building her own home-based businesses the whole time His Excellency was practically living in his office? The same woman who charmed people at her husband’s swearing in as attorney general in 2006?
The neurotic, always-worried-about-her-clothes basketcase who confidently wore a cherry red gown and shawl called “striking” by admirers to Gov. Tim Kaine’s ball in 2006? Who jauntily told a Richmond Times-Dispatch reporter asking about her black-and-rhinestone, high-heel dancing shoes that “I’ve always danced. I used to dance in boots!”?
Who wore her pink “Women for McDonnell” T-shirts and led rallies during his campaign for governor? (In between shuttling the twins to soccer practice?) Who appeared in McDonnell’s campaign ads as the supportive, doting wife?
Guess that was just what McDonnell needed from her at the time. The former Redskins cheerleader became another prop in his ambitious push for more prestige, more honor, more self-congratulatory moments where he stopped to golly gee at his wonderful self for holding “the same job as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.”
McDonnell testified that his wife was increasingly uncomfortable with his growing workload and public life. But he didn’t seem to listen to her. He just complained that their romantic connection was lost. Her response? She went door-to-door campaigning for him while pregnant with twins.
Yeah, maybe that level of support was a little meshuga.
So far, the best he’s laid out in his opening defense from the witness stand – smooth as butter, especially now that he’s embraced his silver hair — is parading the private moments of frustration, insecurity and struggle that a husband and wife share together over a lifetime. After 37 years of holding down the fort, raising his kids and keeping it all running, McDonnell wants Virginians to know his wife got pissy at him every so often.
The Rolex on his wrist? The smile while driving the Ferrari? The golf trips and private jet flights that were part of the package of $177,000 in cash and gifts he accepted while in office from a man who said he wanted to buy him were all about his wife, too?
His Excellency comes and goes into the courtroom without looking at his wife. He is flanked by a Catholic priest who testified about how moral McDonnell is. His defense team has painted his wife as harboring a schoolgirl “crush” on the man — Jonnie Ray Williams — who showered the couple with gifts and cash, explaining in court that he didn’t want to be their friends, he just wanted to buy their support of the nutritional supplement he was hawking.
On the stand Thursday, he confessed that he was so tired of her difficulties with the first lady role, he would purposefully stay out at night until his wife had gone to sleep. “I couldn’t come home to listen to that,” he said. A week before the trial, he moved out and is staying in a church rectory, he told the jury.
The defense strategy that the former governor is taking is sickening. It’s the ultimate sleazy, political husband manipulation that is anything but moral.
I keep wondering if McDonnell has soothed himself by seeking a kinship with another Republican renowned for having a complicated wife. Maybe he’s rewatched Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln (filmed in Virginia, Williams got to meet Spielberg), and the scene where Sally Field as first lady Mary Todd Lincoln says to her husband: “All everyone will remember of me was that I was crazy and that I ruined your happiness.”
Of course, maybe McDonnell forgot to look at that moment that wasn’t in the film, when Abraham Lincoln called out to his wife in the streets of Springfield, Ill., on the day he was elected to the presidency in 1860: “Mary! Mary! We are elected.”
“We,” Governor. President Lincoln said “we.”
Petula Dvorak is a Washington Post columnist for its Metro section.
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