Can Robert and Maureen McDonnell’s marriage be saved?


In 2009, then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell hugs his wife, Maureen, during a rally in Richmond. Their marriage was the focus of the couple’s corruption trial. (Steve Helber/AP)

The most confounding question for most people following the corruption trial of Robert F. and Maureen McDonnell was not the legality of the former Virginia governor and his wife soliciting all manner of loot from a vitamin salesman looking for help launching a ­tobacco-based potential cure-all.

It wasn’t, as Bob McDonnell himself asked rhetorically on the stand, why he would trade all the respect built up over years of public service for some swag from former Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie R. Williams Sr. Or even why, if his wife, Maureen, was really the selfish, screaming terror he and her own defense team made her out to be, she was willing to shoulder the blame for them both.

Instead, the mystery was why the former Republican star and his wife ever agreed to put the allegedly sad state of their marriage at the heart of their legal defense — a strategy that failed miserably with the seven men and five women on the jury even as it turned their private difficulties into a public spectacle.

Now that the McDonnells have been found guilty on multiple counts and are probably facing prison time, the future of their relationship would seem to be the least of their problems. But after the five-week public vivisection of the former first lady, it’s hard to see how their 38-year marriage can survive.

“I’d be surprised if they ever talk again,” said veteran Texas defense attorney Frank Jackson, an old friend of Bob McDonnell’s attorney Hank Asbill and someone who has seen lots of couples survive all kinds of legal scandals — when, that is, one mate either believes that the other is flat-out innocent or has been wronged by his accusers.

Verdicts of individual counts from the McDonnell trial.

Of the McDonnells, though, Jackson says that far from what he has seen, “Those people will never be back together.”

Many political couples do get past marital betrayals that become public, although the majority of them revolve around infidelity. Bill and Hillary Clinton are as married as they ever were. So are Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), whose number was found on the client list of the “D.C. Madam,” and his wife, Wendy, a former prosecutor. A quarter of a century after former senator Gary Hart (D-Colo.) ended (then restarted, then re-ended) his 1988 presidential run after photographic evidence of an island getaway with a young model named Donna Rice, he and Lee Hart, the woman he married in 1958, remain together. Huma Abedin didn’t leave former representative Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) over his sexting lapse — and relapse — either.

When Jenny Sanford divorced then-South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R), as she explained in her book, “Staying True,” it was because she couldn’t stay with him and feel proud of that choice. That, and after he cried for the soul mate/mistress who is now his fiancee at the endless news conference at which he admitted he hadn’t been hiking the Appalachian Trail, he called home to ask her how he had done. (He has since been elected to Congress — the voters apparently being more forgiving of his transgressions than his former wife.)

One of the most spectacularly wronged political wives in memory, the late Elizabeth Edwards, whose husband fathered a child with another woman while she was fighting terminal cancer, once said that life after her separation from former presidential aspirant and senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) involved “the ongoing process of finding your feet again and retelling your story to yourself. You thought you were living in one novel, and it turns out you were living in another.”

In his novel on the topic, “Adultery,” the Brazilian writer Paolo Coelho argues that ending a marriage over an affair is almost always a mistake. “You see politicians destroying their careers because of infidelity — there are many cases all over the world,’’ he told WAMU’s Kojo Nnamdi. But breaking up over such a thing is something else again, he said, adding that he’s certainly glad he hadn’t thrown away his marriage of now 34 years after his own and his wife’s long-ago infidelities. When she confessed, he said, “I thought, ‘So what? I love her.’ I did not feel very well knowing this, but I’m glad we survived it.”

Some spouses stick around because they believe their mates have done nothing wrong: “When you think your husband is an innocent victim, that makes all the difference in the world,’’ said Patti Blagojevich, whose husband, Rod, the former governor of Illinois, is serving a 14-year term in a federal prison in Colorado after being found guilty of trying to sell the Senate seat that was vacated by Barack Obama.

“If I thought he was [guilty], that would degrade my respect for him, but how could you leave someone who’s there through no fault of his own?” All summer, she said, their family has been waiting for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit to rule on his legal team’s argument that nothing he did was illegal.

The public corruption trial against former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell (R) spanned five weeks, as prosecutors levied 14 counts against him and his wife, Maureen. Here's a look at the corruption case, by the numbers. (Julie Percha/The Washington Post)

“I just heard from a woman the other day,’’ Blagojevich added, “whose husband is going to the same prison, and she’s really contemplating divorce. But he wasn’t the person she thought he was. So then, why would you stay?”

That, too, has been done, of course.

But politicians are not like the rest of us; mortifications that would send the non-pol into hiding are sloughed off as all part of the job.

Thus did McDonnell reject his chance to plead guilty to a single count of fraud — a deal that would have allowed him to shield his wife from charges and avoid a trial. Instead, he opted for five weeks of excruciatingly intimate testimony about their apparently fizzled union. And on that, at least, his wife agreed.

Their defense revolved around her supposed “crush” on Williams. The couple’s attorneys argued that the mother of the governor’s five children could not have been working with her husband to trade official favors for goodies because she had a “mild obsession,” whatever that means, with her “favorite playmate,” who showered her with gifts and attention.

That argument never made much sense. Throughout recorded history, distracted or even estranged mates have been known to communicate. Still, every day, the McDonnells made quite a show of not only arriving and leaving the courthouse separately, but mostly avoiding eye contact even while seated at adjacent defense tables just feet apart.

In 17 hours of testimony, the former governor, who told the jury he has been staying with his parish priest since shortly before the trial began, ticked off a long list of complaints about his wife, including her decibel-level communication style and unwillingness to seek counseling and his hurt that she couldn’t get along with her staff. He testified that their marriage was “basically on hold.”

For decades, their eldest daughter testified, she had considered her mother lonely and depressed. And well before the investigation, any show of warmth between the two was, according to Jeanine McDonnell Zubowsky, an “act.”

“Any time they went into a public setting,’’ she testified, “it was like a switch flipped and they turned it on.”

If being shut out by her husband was hard for Maureen McDonnell, hearing her child describe her impressions of her escape into drinks, long baths and soap operas had to have been torture.

Often, because politics really is a family business, the campaign spouse is more likely to see his or her career as a joint venture in a way that a doctor’s wife or lawyer’s husband probably wouldn’t.

That’s why it was Elizabeth Edwards who insisted her husband continue campaigning for the presidency even after his affair became public. And why Lee Hart reportedly said, back in 1987, “We can keep going. I think it’s important you become president.”

Maureen McDonnell, on the other hand, hated the political life that, by all accounts, she never wanted. But no matter what he says, she did not end his career — and perhaps their marriage — by herself.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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