Bob McDonnell has finally begun taking steps to get past the gifts scandal. The Virginia governor announced last week that he has repaid more than $120,000 to Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, who gave the McDonnells the questionable gifts and loans. He has apologized for the scandal, saying in a statement that “I am deeply sorry for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia and her citizens.”
And this week, McDonnell confirmed that he will return or has given back all of the gifts he and his family received from Williams, including a Rolex watch and wedding gifts for his daughters that included a $15,000 catering contribution and a $10,000 engagement gift.
But if McDonnell really wants to ensure some kind of political future, he needs to go two steps further. First, he should speak even more clearly and directly about his actions and what he plans to do in response. Passive statements about “choices that have been made” are not enough. Additionally, he should do something that some believe Virginia politicians may never do: use his last few months in office to reform the state’s gifts and disclosure laws, seen as one of the most lax in the nation.
I’m hardly the only one to suggest this. The Post’s Robert McCartney, University of Virginia political science professor Larry Sabato, and a Virginia political strategist have all proposed reforms as a way for McDonnell to have a chance at restoring his reputation. Doing so would require calling a special session of Virginia’s General Assembly, something unusual this close to a general election.
Here’s why a push for reform could actually work for McDonnell. First, Virginia’s one-term governorship means he is not eligible for reelection, and, therefore, has little to lose. Plus, unless he does some serious political rehab, a career on the national stage doesn’t look likely. By pushing to fix the very laws that allowed the gifts he’d received to happen, he will get in front of the debate and has a chance at the last word on the issue–that is, as long as he doesn’t end up facing legal charges.
People expect more from political leaders, after all, than just an adherence to the letter of the law. They expect them to use their judgment and their moral compass to set an example for what is appropriate, not just what is legal. And if what is legal doesn’t fit within that framework, leaders should use their position to fix it. It’s not clear McDonnell gets this. In a radio program Tuesday, he reportedly said “many questions have been asked about why I didn’t do X, Y and Z. Well, because it’s not the law.”
Giving back the money and making an apology might be enough to fix the reputation of someone who isn’t the governor of the state. But the legacy of a political leader will be judged against a higher bar. We elect politicians to do more than just keep a clean record and avoid ethical quagmires. We elect them to reform laws, solve problems and right obvious wrongs.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.