The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The McDonnell paradox: Public service, private entitlement

Placeholder while article actions load

Part of the tragedy of Bob and Maureen McDonnell is how their story mingles public service and wholesome family values with venality and greed.

Reading the 43-page indictment against Virginia’s former first couple presents a jarring disconnect between the realities of the McDonnell family and the images they projected while living in the Executive Mansion in Richmond.

McDonnell had an aura that made him popular with conservative Virginians right to the end of his term. He was seen as friendly, family-value oriented and hard-working. Indeed, he achieved some remarkable things, such as getting the first significant new transportation funding in the state in years.

Maureen Patricia McDonnell was the stay-at-home mom with five children who never finished college. She did work briefly at the FBI and held other government jobs. She also was once a Washington Redskins cheerleader.

Like her husband, she was the child of a government worker, a common story in the D.C. area. She was one of nine children of a Foreign Service officer. Her husband’s dad had been in the Air Force. Devoutly Catholic, Robert McDonnell had been a football star at Bishop Ireton High School before setting off to Notre Dame.

Somehow, apparently, political ambition, greed and the trials of raising large families collided with the McDonnells’ idea of service. As First Lady, Maureen was active in helping expectant mothers and disabled children and promoting health, Virginia wine and her husband’s policies.

Before the 2008 real estate crash, Robert McDonnell invested more than $3 million in vacation houses in Virginia Beach and at the Wintergreen Ski Resort in Nelson County (full disclosure: My tennis club rented the mountain house at an inexpensive price at least twice for its annual late winter tune-up). The crash came. McDonnell was stuck with huge debts.

Maureen, apparently, ran up large credit card debts, according to an e-mail from Maureen about her need to buy an expensive dress is revealing. In December 2009, just before her husband’s inauguration as governor, she wrote to a staff member:

“I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already.”

There’s no need to go through the list of luxury items, loans and other gifts that the McDonnells later accepted from businessman Jonnie R. Williams.

This one e-mail sums up what seems to have been Maureen McDonnell’s mindset about being First Lady. She seemed simultaneously overwhelmed and insecure yet entitled and deserving. Her husband, meanwhile, was apparently willing to play along with efforts to tap Williams.

All this was in marked contrast to their family-first wholesomeness and disciplined morality. Few knew how difficult their personal financial condition was with the fruits of the office of governor were tantalizingly within reach.

Peter Galuszka blogs at Bacon’s Rebellion. The Local Blog Network is a group of bloggers from around the D.C. region who have agreed to make regular contributions to All Opinions Are Local.