Maureen McDonnell: Newly convicted and utterly silent

The Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman and Matt Zapotosky break down the trial of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell and his wife. (Lee Powell/The Washington Post)
Petula Dvorak
Columnist September 4

Maureen McDonnell, having uttered not a single word in court for five weeks, stepped into a car and rode away from the crowd a newly convicted felon, still silent.

Her husband, who made history as the first Virginia governor to stand trial and to be convicted, stopped to thank the news media after the verdict Thursday afternoon. Still working the crowd, that guy.

Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post's local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View Archive

After 24 hours on the witness stand and one of the biggest public displays of wife-shaming in memory, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) didn’t save himself. Or his wife.

He had the chance last year to man up and spare his wife and family all this. Prosecutors offered him a single count of fraud that avoided all mention of corruption and any charges against his wife.

But McDonnell decided to gamble. And everyone lost.

The McDonnell family members sobbed after the jury’s guilty verdicts were read in a Richmond courthouse. But the tears should have started much earlier, because whether or not the jury decided that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were guilty of public corruption, the couple had already trashed respect, honor and decency for themselves, their family and the people of Virginia.

The biggest roadkill in all this is Maureen McDonnell. Jurors were treated to a parade of TMI witnesses who called the former first lady a “nutbag,” who talked about her fits, her frustrations and her private meltdowns and even raised the possibility that she suffered from a mental illness.

And still, she was silent.

This woman took the role of long-suffering political wife to a new level. She was flayed, demeaned, belittled and besmirched in court. And she didn’t say a word.

This trial was an unmasking of an uncaring husband and the ruthlessness with which he pursued power — even at the expense of his spouse and children. The lessons here aren’t so much about a shopping spree the former first lady went on with wealthy operator Jonnie R. Williams or the event she helped orchestrate for him to plug the vitamin product he claims to have squeezed out of tobacco leaves.

Let’s be honest, the value of the luxury gifts and loans involved in the case, $177,000, is pretty petty. The McDonnells took these from a Virginia businessman. They let him pay for part of their daughter’s wedding. In exchange, they tried to help him promote his product.

But what this trial told us is that Virginians, embodied in the seven men and five women of the jury, value integrity.

Verdicts of individual counts from the McDonnell trial.

All that the McDonnells said they appreciated when they ran for office — family values, honesty, transparency and that integrity — was lost not just in their transactions with Williams, but, more important, in the way they acted in that courtroom.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell didn’t really address the corruption charges, the possibility of a corrupt quid pro quo during their trial. Rather, they practically mocked the legal system by asking jurors to listen to kvetching and whining about the state of their marriage.

Or at least he did. We still don’t know what she would say.

Maureen McDonnell came and went into the courtroom apart from her husband, keeping quiet, talking only occasionally to her attorneys.

The jury was treated to a cockamamie, Dr. Phil legal strategy of making Maureen, a wife and mother of five, the problem.

We are so used to hearing powerful men on the witness stand say, “I didn’t do it.” But this was one of the first times — and an especially low point in American history — that we saw such a man try to shift all the blame to his wife.

Bob McDonnell whined about the slights, huffs, insecurities and private frustrations that any couple of 38 years would have.

He complained that his wife wasn’t as happy as he was when he won elections. She was insecure and tense about his relentless march forward into public life.

All of that was supposed to make it okay for him to take money from a man who was clearly trying to win him over and get special favors.

I watched those jurors when prosecutors displayed an exhibit of a bill from a fancy golf resort, where greens fees for a day can run more than $2,000. That sort of living surely doesn’t sit well with most working Americans.

But it was the evisceration of his wife — no matter how unpalatable her personality may be — that made us squirm the most.

The jury found McDonnell guilty of 11 counts of and his wife guilty of nine. There’s a pretty good chance they are going to prison. An awful spectacle followed by an awful outcome for a man who once aspired to the White House.

No wonder he had his face in his hands, shaking and sobbing. He’d thrown the mother of his children under the bus, and it hadn’t gained him — or her — anything but humiliation and shame.

Twitter: @petulad

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