RICHMOND — There are no innocents among the star characters in Courtroom 7000, where the former governor of Virginia and his wife are standing trial in a federal public-corruption case.
The prime players are all manipulators — the helmet-haired politician who once aspired to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.; his striving, ex-cheerleader wife; and the fast-talking nutritional supplement entrepreneur.
On Wednesday, the rapt gaze of former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell followed Jonnie Ray Williams, a former car salesman turned nutraceutical entrepreneur, as he strode across the courtroom and took the witness stand for the first time. I was waiting for her to clasp her hands together and moon, “Oh, Jonnie,” or maybe blow him a kiss.
Her puppy crush is a sad act scripted to avoid jail time for allegedly selling the prestige of the governor’s office in exchange for the Rolex on her husband’s wrist, the Ferrari joy ride, the private jet trips, the $70,000 life raft to save a real estate investment, the vacation at the lake house, the help with a daughter’s wedding, the fancy golf gear and the rounds of golf Bob McDonnell and his sons played at $300 a pop.
No wonder one of the jurors got sick in the middle of the trial this week.
It’s no secret that the picture-perfect political families we see on campaign posters are usually the Dysfunctional Family Robinson behind closed doors. Governors can be especially messy when it comes to family affairs.
Think of former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and the baby he conceived with the housekeeper and somehow managed to keep hidden from his wife, Maria Shriver, for more than a decade. Or New Jersey’s James E. McGreevey, married with two kids, coming out of the closet 10 years ago and resigning over a consensual affair with a man. Or the scandal that engulfed South Carolina’s Mark Sanford, who briefly disappeared five years ago, purportedly “hiking the Appalachian trail,” and then left office in disgrace after admitting that he actually had been with a mistress in Argentina.
Or if you want to go all the way back to 1973, we can talk about Maryland’s Marvin Mandel, who announced that he was in love with another woman and then watched helplessly as his wife, Bootsie, barricaded herself in the governor’s mansion in Annapolis.
Governors, they’re just like us.
The McDonnells are no different. They were an upper-middle-class family with five kids when they landed in a high-profile world of money and prestige. And they were in over their heads.
Williams saw them as an easy target — self-made folks who never saw a silver spoon until they earned one themselves.
So here comes this guy with a company called Star Scientific and a private plane and cash. He keeps pestering their 19-year-old son to play golf. He takes the wife on a high-end Manhattan shopping spree. He flies commercial so the McDonnells can have his Learjet. He pays for part of the McDonnell daughter’s wedding. When Williams and his wife go to the governor’s mansion for dinner, they bring the first lady a wallet to match the tres pricey purse from that New York retail binge.
“I have a background in nutritional supplements, and I can be helpful to you,” he testified that the first lady had told him. “. . . The governor says it’s okay for me to help you.”
Williams told the court that he called Bob McDonnell to double-check on this relationship. Not only did the guv say it’s all good, he wrote Williams a nice e-mail the next day, to thank him for what was by then $65,000 in checks to bail him out.
And then the governor showed up at Williams’s events. The first lady began promoting Williams’s product, a nutritional supplement whose main ingredient is a chemical found in tobacco. It was all business.
This wasn’t about a disintegrating marriage and an emotional, needy wife. This was a couple who presented themselves as a shining example of all that is moral and righteous. And once Virginians, believing that they were good people, had put McDonnell in office, they allegedly sold off what the people of Virginia had given them — the public trust. That’s why they were charged in a 14-count federal indictment.
Most of us play by the rules, refusing to give in to greed on a daily basis. Every single day in America, a police officer rejects a bribe, a truck driver fills out his mileage without any fudging, a reader pays for a newspaper at the box instead of swiping it off someone’s stoop, a store clerk gives change without trying to pocket an extra $5. Integrity and honesty abound in this country.
The McDonnells, by contrast, seemed all too eager to cash in. Ferraris? Plane rides? Golf clubs? A wedding catered? They knew better.
Did Williams want to be friends with the McDonnells? “He’s a politician. I’m a businessman,” Williams deadpanned. “This was a business relationship.”
All the lovesick melodrama about the first lady having a crush on Williams has probably been manufactured by the defense attorneys. Maybe they have some evidence to back up this story line. But when this scandal began, Bob and Maureen McDonnell showed up in court holding hands, presenting themselves as a solid, Christian couple.
Now they are changing that narrative, walking in and out of court in separate entourages, riding different elevators, brushing past each other without even making eye contact. The staging borders on ridiculous. They are doing nothing more than selling Virginians another tale.
The saddest thing about the whole affair? She probably never even got to have one.
For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/dvorak.