Bob and Maureen McDonnell join the club: Political spouses facing scandal


Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, have been embroiled in a gifts scandal. (Steve Helber/Associated Press)

Imagine for a minute the pillow talk shared within a marriage embroiled in a political scandal.

We’re not talking about a sex scandal, that trope faced time and again by spouses of wayward politicians. Consider instead paper crimes — legal violations involving gifts accepted, ethics rules broken or money hidden in undergarments.

The latest paper scandal to hit the political scene is, of course, the indictment of former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) and his wife, Maureen. Last week, the McDonnells were jointly charged in a 14-count indictment alleging that they engaged in conspiracy and fraud, trading on his office to provide assistance to a local businessman in exchange for more than $165,000 in luxury gifts and loans.

A political union is unique within the institution of marriage — the unelected partner has presumably campaigned for her spouse, smiled on his fair share of rope lines and signed up, reluctantly or not, for public scrutiny of their life together. So what happens when the clouds of scandal descend? Do such charges harden the resolve of the political couple, who by definition are accustomed to facing adversaries? Or does it tear the relationship apart?

The first step is for both spouses to determine whether their interests still align, said Judy Smith, the famed D.C. crisis manager who advised Monica Lewinsky and inspired the television hit “Scandal.” One might have to have walk.

“In these situations, the couple should not be so concerned about optics,” Smith said. “You can’t fake it.”

In their case, the McDonnells have presented a united front so far. Both pleaded not guilty, and Maureen McDonnell quietly stood at her husband’s side as he denied all charges in a televised statement.

In Illinois, disgraced former Democratic governor Rod Blagojevich, serving a 14-year term on corruption charges, has a firm defender in his wife, Patricia, who has said she and the children speak and visit with him regularly.

“Marriages always have adversity — whether it’s public or private — and the political marriages are used to having adversaries and that builds strength in a marriage,” said Matthew Berger, vice president of Dezenhall Resources, a crisis communications firm in the District.

True. Sometimes.

Modern political history is replete with such stories. Some survive. Many do not.

“I don’t profess to be a marriage counselor,” the Democratic spinner Chris Lehane said twice while offering thoughts on how political couples survive scandal. But some truths apply, said Lehane, a crisis PR man who served in the Clinton White House.

First, the bond must be based on “a genuine relationship, a best-friends level relationship,” he said, in which the partners will fight as a unit against someone they feel is wrongly attacking them.

“Some of it also comes down to, ‘What is the conduct?’ ” he said. “Is it a level of moral turpitude that you didn’t know about your spouse? Or is it something that you would not have become the subject of criminal prosecution were it not for the fact that you’re a public official?”

The vows when marrying a politician “should include a corollary about living through political scandal,” Lehane said.

There also comes a point when the politician must decide whether he or she will “take it on the chin for their spouse or go into survival mode,” said Jason Linde, vice president of the public affairs shop DDC Advocacy.

In the case of former Prince George’s County county executive Jack B. Johnson and his wife, Leslie, there was a little bit of both. They both pleaded guilty to their role in a far-reaching corruption and bribery scheme. Leslie Johnson, who was then an incoming council member, was taken into custody after she was overheard on an FBI wiretap discussing with her husband how she should hide $79,600 in cash in her bra.

The couple hung tight until the end. Both went to jail.

The two displayed what Texas psychologist Misty Hook called a Bonnie and Clyde complex.

“There’s the adrenaline rush that comes with doing something bad, and you can get addicted to that,” Hook said. “That can draw you together — before you get caught.”

But in cases where one partner is to blame, it can quickly turn to feelings of betrayal.

The marriage of former representative John Jenrette, a South Carolina Democrat, dissolved soon after his bribery conviction in the FBI sting known as Abscam. His wife Rita initially stood by him, until early 1981 when she discovered $25,000 stuffed into a shoe in his closet.

She believed it was part of a bribe stash and announced she was divorcing John, who had always protested his innocence.

“I’m sick. I might as well just kill myself,” she told a Post reporter at the time. “This is my husband.”

But like others stung by a spouse’s scandal, Rita Jenrette persevered; she went on to have a tabloid-friendly career, writing a dishy memoir, posing twice for Playboy and acting in B-movies. Eventually she got into real estate and married an Italian prince; she now is known as Princess Rita Boncompagni Ludovisi.

When a politician puts the rap on the spouse, it’s a more complicated situation, said Lara Brown, a professor at George Washington University who has studied political scandals. “It tends to look like the politician is trying to evade responsibility and most people tend to believe already that politicians are a little slippery,” she said.

Nearly 20 years ago, a Utah congresswoman named Enid Greene Waldholtz suddenly discovered that her husband, Joe Waldholtz, the father of her 10-week-old daughter, was a con artist. Convicted later of financial fraud, he had embezzled millions to help fund her campaign for Congress — then went on the lam, leaving his wife behind to explain to her constituents that she’d been totally blindsided.

“I had a feeling that life was pretty much over,” said the former Republican lawmaker, who is remarried and goes by Enid Mickelsen. Everybody wondered: How could she not have known?

Her answer: “I did not know this person,” she said.

The scandal derailed the first-term representative’s career. She was cleared of criminal wrongdoing but fined by the Federal Election Commission along with her stockbroker father, from whom Joe Waldholtz had embezzled the funds.

“I wasn’t in the position of trying to save my marriage,” she says today. “When I found out what he had done, the marriage was irretrievably broken.”

Mickelsen, now 55, slowly regained her bearings, got a radio show and became a Republican activist; the party named her last week to head the committee that will pick the host city for the 2016 Republican convention.

In 2007 she married a career police officer who later became a municipal judge. “Some people say, ‘You swung to the other end of the pendulum,’ ” she recounts with a laugh, “and I say, ‘Yeah, I had to make sure I knew who I married this time.’ ”

Ovetta Wiggins contributed to this report.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has covered local businesses, traveled to El Salvador and Guatemala to tell stories of immigrants’ connections to their home countries and reported from the newsroom’s Prince George’s County bureau. More recently, she has written about civil rights, race and politics.
Richard Leiby is a senior writer in Post’s Style section. His previous assignments have included Pakistan Bureau Chief, and reporter, columnist and editor in Washington. He joined The Post in 1991.
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