Mr. McDonnell apologizes, but he still needs to explain

July 23, 2013

DOES VIRGINIA Gov. Robert F. McDonnell get it or not?

On Tuesday, Mr. McDonnell (R) apologized “for the embarrassment certain members of my family and I brought upon my beloved Virginia and her citizens.” And, in an action that spoke much louder than those somewhat parsimonious words, he said he had repaid more than $124,000 to the businessman who plied him and his family with gifts, loans and cash.

The repayment-with-interest to the businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., was an implicit admission that governors should not be in the business of accepting handouts or loans from individuals who are seeking favorable treatment from the state, as Mr. Williams was.

But the governor, perhaps on the advice of counsel, offered no explanation and made no explicit acknowledgement of wrongdoing, improper conduct or even bad judgment. Nor did he repay Williams for “gifts” — a Rolex, a shopping spree at Bergdorf Goodman, catering for his daughter’s wedding — that were every bit as ethically egregious as the loans and should be every bit as embarrassing to Mr. McDonnell.

For months Mr. McDonnell has been urged to come clean about his ties with Mr. Williams. For months he has stonewalled, insisting, as he did again Tuesday, that he broke no law. But at the same time — and in the very same sentence — Mr. McDonnell told the people of Virginia that he is “committed to regaining your sacred trust and confidence,” an open admission that he has lost it.

It remains to be seen whether he violated any laws; state and federal investigations have been underway. But the central point, now conceded after too much foot-dragging by the governor, is this: Even if Mr. McDonnell managed to avoid criminality, by lawyerly maneuvering or otherwise, his conduct was unacceptable, unwise and unbecoming of the state’s chief executive. It was not merely embarrassing, as Mr. McDonnell has now said; it was wrong.

It is true that other governors of Virginia, and perhaps their family members, too, have accepted gifts, trips and other baubles resulting from their privilege in holding high office. It may also be true of some state lawmakers, which could help explain why the reaction in Richmond to this scandal has been muted. (That may also owe something to the fact that Mr. McDonnell, who has been an able governor, remains well-liked and respected.)

But by all evidence, Mr. McDonnell and his family pushed the freebie-fest much further than his predecessors had. The governor, admitting the tarnish to his reputation, now concedes he has embarrassed Virginia. That’s a decent start. But it remains an apology in search of an explanation.

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