In Maureen McDonnell v. the World, how does a ‘crush’ preclude a conspiracy?


Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell, center, with her daughters Rachel McDonnell, left, and Cailin Young. (Joe Mahoney/AP)

Outside the courtroom, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) is surrounded by well-wishers he reflexively takes by the elbow and claps on the shoulder. Although his corruption trial is hardly a festive occasion, he and his supporters do manage a few laughs, and a couple of words — “fun dinner” — ricochet off the marble floors in the federal courthouse halls.

Not once, however, does he glance in the direction of his wife and co-defendant, Maureen McDonnell, although it’s impossible to know whether that reflects how he feels, or how he has been coached to behave. But she’s just a few yards away with her head bowed and eyes squeezed shut, praying out loud with her pastor, whose arms she’s gripping tightly. When they finish, she leans against a wall and stands on one leg, like a bird conserving heat and energy, or a woman whose heels are already bothering her at 9 a.m.

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Maybe she’s visibly sweating the day ahead because it feels like Maureen McDonnell v. the World here in the courtroom, where her husband is cast as a long-suffering spouse — who, yes, was the governor, but also just a guy who couldn’t keep his embarrassment of a wife from running after the deep pockets of a deeply tanned vitamin salesman.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell allegedly traded favors for $165,000 in loans and freebies, and each stands accused of selling the dignity of his office to Jonnie Williams, a mega-donor who sought and received the governor’s help in launching a tobacco product with the purported potential to treat cancer, Alzheimer’s and more. (Next, maybe chocolate truffles for weight control, using the same microwave that Williams claims can extract carcinogens from tobacco to remove the calories from cocoa butter?)

In this second week of their joint trial on public corruption charges, the former first couple’s his-and-hers defense teams continue to cast him as a dupe and her as a fool for not love, or even sex, but a “crush.”

There are a few problems with this strategy, though: Even if attorneys call her feelings by the infantilizing name we gave them in junior high, I have on excellent authority that some multitasking women are capable of both “crushing” on someone new and communicating with a longtime spouse. And if you think only the male of the species can compartmentalize, well, I’m sure Williams has some great investment opportunities for you.

Even if the former governor’s 60-year-old wife, who still wears her bangs feathered and her hair below her shoulders, is the emotionally starved shopping zombie she has been made out to be, I’m not sure how that obviates evidence that her husband also seems to have exchanged cachet for ca-ching.

On the 40th anniversary of the Watergate scandal, Maureen McDonnell is in some ways a modern-day Martha Mitchell — the designated crazy lady who’s supposed to take the blame. Richard Nixon even said there would have been no Watergate without Martha, on the theory that she’d “distracted” her husband, Attorney General John Mitchell, from keeping the administration out of trouble. (Although, unlike Maureen McDonnell, all Martha Mitchell wanted was to tell the truth, in late-night calls to reporters, the Nixon White House nevertheless succeeded in painting her as a gauche and delusional big spender with a mouth to match. Sound at all familiar?)

Again and again, we hear that Maureen has terrible taste — oh, a full-length white leather coat — and worse judgment, subjecting Williams to what he called the most embarrassing event of his life, when she spent $20,000 on a New York shopping trip he took her on in April 2011. According to Williams, that was in direct exchange for wrangling him a seat next to the governor at a dinner that night. Of course, the kinder way to deal with a person with rotten judgment is to refuse their requests.

And, if her only true goal was to ingratiate herself to and spend time around the former chief executive of Star Scientific, why did she also wheedle a Rolex for her husband out of Williams, and getaways not with Williams but with the governor? And what about her husband’s own well-documented requests for money from Williams?

In keeping with her defense team’s insistence on labeling her feelings for Williams a crush, the supposed object of her affection did everything but yell, “Ew, cooties!” when asked on the witness stand whether he and the former first lady had ever had a physical or emotional relationship. “I never had any contact with Mrs. McDonnell — no physical contact period,” he said emphatically. In fact, he said that he was never particularly fond of either of the McDonnells but that he does like their son Bobby.

Whatever Maureen McDonnell’s private feelings, though, and however complicated her marriage, all three of the players in this grubby drama seem far more transactional than heat-seeking, and completely devoid of tenderness.

Williams laughed at Maureen McDonnell’s expense when he testified that her former chief of staff had begged him to hire her, and told him how embarrassing it was working for someone who was “hitting everybody up” all the time. When Williams was asked about the text Maureen McDonnell once sent him after an earthquake — “I just felt the earth move, and I wasn’t having sex’’ — Bob McDonnell seemed to chuckle at her, not with her, along with the rest of the courtroom. Maureen stared straight ahead.

Her behavior didn’t always reflect well on her husband, testified his former campaign manager Phil Cox, who described McDonnell as someone with “a great heart for service” and “the least materialistic person I know.” Maureen, on the other hand, he told the court, sent him a nastygram one Christmas Eve, and actually tried to pitch one of Williams’s products to Ann Romney as an antidote to multiple sclerosis. “I was horrified,’’ Cox said. “I thought it was a train wreck” and “I didn’t think it showed the governor in a great light.”

But neither does it bathe McDonnell in the rose-tinged last of the afternoon sun on the Tiber to pursue a legal strategy that leaves the woman he promised to honor so exposed.

The hit CBS TV show “The Good Wife” began with the premise of a wronged political wife who sort of, sometimes stands by her cheating husband, who is now the governor of Illinois. In an inversion of that familiar formula, it’s Maureen McDonnell who has been cast as the bad wife and the cheater, lusting after another man and/or what he could buy her. Only, by claiming that he couldn’t have conspired with his silly wife because they were barely speaking, Bob McDonnell makes the fictional Gov. Peter Florrick look almost gentlemanly by comparison.

Members of the McDonnell jury betray nothing, taking notes and sipping water, but do they hear about the extraordinary access Williams had and think that everyday citizens of the commonwealth who pay taxes and vote and show up for jury duty get anything like that same level of support?

In the McDonnells’ favor as the jury mulls over the case the next month: Quid pro quo is hard to establish. “My spouse can be difficult” is easy.

But the blame-the-wife defense strategy is risky, too. Not because Maureen is so likable, but because all the piling on makes her a victim, and her husband less appealing.

Sometimes, when you first meet a longtime couple, it’s the differences between them that are the most striking. How did someone so lovely wind up with someone who is just the opposite, we wonder.

But inevitably, as you get to know the couple better, whether or not they’re well-suited, their years together begin to make more sense, and you see the ways in which they’re more alike than it first appeared. How, just for example, a wife who initially seemed so much more grasping than her husband might not be, and “the least materialistic person” you know could turn out to be no such thing.

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