Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell: Cinderella ineptly trying to fit in at the castle

Petula Dvorak
Columnist July 22, 2013

Just look at the stuff, and you’ll see where the problems began in Richmond.

A Rolex, cruising in a Ferrari, a shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman, wedding catering, flying in a private jet, a lake-house vacation.

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

A venture capitalist’s posh world?

Nope. Welcome to the luxe life of Virginia’s first lady.

These are the gifts that have been showered upon Virginia’s first family, and the largess is now part of state and federal investigations.

The perks of politics

Gov. McDonnell has received over $300,000 in gifts since 2002. See all politicians and donors.

The ills befalling the House of McDonnell are all about vanity. Most specifically, the vanity of the state’s first lady, Maureen McDonnell.

Just take a look at her official first lady portrait, which says it all.

It’s the oil-on-canvas version of fashion magazine Photoshopping or the equivalent of using a 20-year-old photo as your Facebook profile pic.

The official portrait underwent several makeovers, acknowledged Tom Camden, until recently curator of the state art collection. “I understand how Mrs. McDonnell thought,” he told The Washington Post in Laura Vozzella’s profile of the first lady. “And I think she wanted her best image, whether it was necessarily historically accurate or not.”

Trust me, we women know these tricks. I sure wish my column head shot could have been of a younger, leaner me. But about the time we give up on stiletto heels, we give in to reality and just post any old photo.

Too bad McDonnell didn’t give as much thought to the image of her family as takers, an easy image to conjure based on months of reporting by The Post’s Rosalind S. Helderman.

Maureen McDonnell flew around in the private jet owned by Virginia businessman Johnnie R. Williams Sr. She took a ride in his Ferrari, let him pay for the catering of a daughter’s wedding, asked him to pay for a $15,000 New York shopping spree and admired his Rolex, asking him to buy her one to give her husband.

She promoted the nutritional supplement Williams is selling and, despite cringes from the governor’s staff, held a reception touting this product in the governor’s mansion.

There are new allegations that she also accepted free cosmetic dental work — the kind of vanity work that surely isn’t part of any government health plan.

Let’s step back for a second and try to figure out how a mother of five who is described by friends as “sweet” became a first lady swimming in unethical luxury.

She comes from a humble background and worked hard as a stay-at-home mom, with occasional forays into home-based businesses such as vitamin supplements and teddy bear sales. She was a Redskins cheerleader who married a football guy. He proposed in a parking lot.

It was a life that didn’t exactly polish her for the world of politics and Ladies Who Lunch.

And most of us — ordinary folks who underdress for a luncheon, never got braces as kids or aren’t as svelte as we used to be — can probably feel her pain.

So perhaps, like the first lady, our ethics would get a little rubbery if a local businessman like Williams swooped in and opened his wallet, easing that awkward transition to a gold-plated club.

The job of first lady is tough. Expected to perform certain duties but never paid for them. Written up for clothing and hairstyle choices more often than for charity work. Scrutinized for being a lightweight, criticized for being overbearing.

First ladies rarely have it easy.

But McDonnell isn’t a Lady Macbeth, manipulating and scheming her and her husband’s way into power, or a Mary Todd Lincoln, pillaging the public coffers to sustain a level of posh living. She’s probably more like an awkward Cinderella, trying too hard to fit in at the castle.

The thing she forgot? The Commonwealth of Virginia isn’t the Redskins’ stadium. Ultimately, Virginians will judge their first lady on her integrity, sincerity and humility. They’re not looking for toothpaste smiles and cheerleading.

Gov. Robert F. McDonnell’s supporters were probably delighted when the spotlight fell on the first lady as the vain epicenter of this scandal. The first lady’s always good for deflecting a scandal, right?

Making the first lady out to be the source of all evil is too easy, however. Sure, her vanity gave us the juiciest parts of this debacle. But Williams provided $70,000 to a business owned by McDonnell and his sister. The governor reported $50,000 to the first lady as a loan, but he did not report the $70,000 from Williams because it was a loan to his corporation and most corporate loans don’t have to be reported.

There’s probably no way all these gifts would have come to this ex-cheerleader if it weren’t for her husband’s job. And there’s just no way that he didn’t know what was going on. It takes a lot of vanity to think the voters of Virginia don’t know this, too.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.

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