When Bob McDonnell broke down in tears in the courtroom as the 20 “guilty” verdicts were announced, what do you suppose he was thinking?
That his career lay in ruins? That the jury disbelieved his nearly 24 hours of sworn testimony? That his failed defense strategy had demolished the reputation of his wife, Maureen?
We won’t know until the former governor writes a tell-all book or pleads for redemption in an emotional television interview.
Here’s what I’d like to believe: Bob McDonnell’s sobs showed he finally recognized that his own arrogance and self-delusion had brought him down.
McDonnell thought he was so clever that he could exploit loopholes in Virginia law to pocket $177,000 in luxury gifts and sweetheart loans without getting caught.
When that didn’t work, and corruption charges were brought, he thought he could talk his way out of trouble on the witness stand.
He was fooling himself. Neither the law’s gray areas nor his own eloquence swayed the jurors. They needed just over two days to convict him of 11 felonies and Maureen of nine.
“His happy life is over, whether or not he is exonerated on appeal,” Anne Coughlin, a University of Virginia criminal law professor, said. “A jury of his peers came back and said, ‘You are corrupt.’ That must really conflict with his image of who he is.”
I’d also like to believe that other politicians will learn from McDonnell’s downfall.
The jury’s quick and devastating verdict showed that the public doesn’t care much about legal nuances, such as what constitutes an “official act.”
The public just thinks, reasonably enough, that elected officials should not accept lavish personal gifts from people who want something in return.
“If you’re a smart governor or state politician of any stripe, you are going to be very wary about accepting any personal gift of any size from anyone,” said Andrew G. McBride, a former federal prosecutor who now practices at Wiley Rein.
Excessive pride wasn’t Bob McDonnell’s only sin. Greed played a role. He also might have suffered from envy of the opulent lifestyle enjoyed by the wealthy business executives who suddenly wanted to hang out with him after he moved into the Executive Mansion in Richmond.
But McDonnell ended up this way mainly because of hubris. His story is very much a morality tale, but not the one he’d constructed in his own mind or successfully peddled to the public.
In more than two decades in elected office, McDonnell portrayed himself as the straightest of straight arrows. Former Army lieutenant colonel. Loving husband and father of five. Christian-values conservative.
He convinced himself of his own selflessness. In a revealing sentence in the famous e-mail to Maureen begging to improve their marriage, he wrote, “My whole life is spent trying to help my family and other people.”
The scandal pointed to a contrary character trait: self-centeredness. That defect was evident in three major missteps by McDonnell that resulted in Thursday’s conviction.
The first was convincing himself that he was such an expert in Virginia law that he could go just up to the line without overstepping. He overlooked the risk of accepting so much largesse from businessman Jonnie Williams Sr.
“You have to look at the whole picture,” said Randall Eliason, a former chief of public corruption in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in the District. “What emerged here was a long-term pattern of extraordinary gifts.”
In his second error, McDonnell was so determined to win complete exoneration for himself that he turned down a plea deal that he clearly should have taken. It would have required him to plead guilty to just one crime, which wasn’t corruption, and let his wife go unpunished.
Finally, he mounted the notorious “broken marriage” defense, which proved too concocted to be credible. He tried to clear both himself and Maureen by claiming, in effect, that she was responsible for all of it — and she couldn’t be convicted of public corruption because the first lady’s position is merely ceremonial.
It didn’t sit well with jurors, partly because they noticed that the couple had physically separated only a week before the trial.
“Pointing and blaming other people is risky, especially when you’re the governor and the other person you’re blaming is your wife,” Coughlin said.
As he left the courthouse, McDonnell commented that his “trust remains in the Lord.” As a man of faith, he ought to turn now to one of the most important spiritual virtues: humility.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.