The verdict and the sordid details of the McDonnells’ marriage are a far cry from the picture most voters had up until the scandal broke of a straight-shooting governor with a record of accomplishment. If everyone gets one line in history, as Clare Boothe Luce said, his will be: “Convicted of 11 corruption charges, McDonnell disgraced himself and ended his promising political future.” As good a governorship as he had, it really doesn’t make up for its ignominious end.
As for the verdict itself, McDonnell will appeal. But for now and if it should stand, the precedent that doing innocuous favors for donors constitutes criminal activity should be alarming to politicians throughout the country. Recall that McDonnell didn’t give state money to Jonnie R. Williams Sr., nor did he usher through legislation on his behalf. He set up some meetings and made some calls. By transforming politics as usual into a felony, the Obama Justice Department has broken new ground to be sure.
The theory of the case doesn’t depend on the amount of the gifts, and technically it doesn’t seem to require the gifts be given during the term of office. Are campaign donations themselves the basis of prosecution if, for example, an administration sets up green energy funds for its donors and pals? What about millions in speaking fees doled out in expectation of a candidate’s future help and access?
They say bad facts make for bad law. Well, there is no getting around the sleaziness of the McDonnells’ behavior and the appalling judgment displayed. But gross behavior is not the basis for criminal conviction.
Is this good for the United States? If one believes that politics gets done in perfect conditions, free from vanity and personal reward, then this is terrific. If, however, you think there needs to be just a modicum of slack in the system to allow for minimal personal favors and courtesies, this is unnerving. If each administration can go after the other for actions that seem to have no concrete limiting principle (What about giving tickets to the inaugural ball? Does government action include an invitation to a State dinner? ), we are going to see politics edge further down the road of criminalization. That, in my book, is bad for all of us.