In March 2012, I ranked the 10 most likely Republican vice presidential picks for GOP nominee Mitt Romney. Bob McDonnell ranked second on that list. Today -- roughly two and a half years later -- the former Virginia governor was found guilty on 11 charges of public corruption tied to his and his wife's relationship with a donor named Jonnie R. Williams Sr..
While it's always dangerous to call anything in politics "the largest and most rapid collapse in modern memory", the fall from political grace for McDonnell is absolutely stunning -- and ensures his spot in the ignominious annals of disgraced politicians with national ambitions right alongside John Edwards.
What's even more remarkable for me than McDonnell's collapse, however, is the combination of stupidity, avarice and total political blindness that led him to this day.
McDonnell had long been touted to me by Republicans in the know as a rising star. He was socially conservative but not in a way that scared establishment Republicans or independents. He was a gifted communicator who knew how to stay on message. And, most importantly, he had the "it" factor -- a combination of charisma and common touch that made people take notice. That talk grew when McDonnell was elected state Attorney General in 2005 and soared when he crushed state Sen. Creigh Deeds -- riding a "Bob's for Jobs" slogan -- to become the Commonwealth's governor in 2009. And for much of his term, McDonnell's approval numbers seemed to defy the gravity that was dragging down other rising star politicians around the country. (Think Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Scott Walker in Wisconsin and John Kasich in Ohio circa 2011/2012.)
That reputation -- and his demonstrated record of political and policy success -- was what made Roz Helderman's initial reporting about the McDonnells' relationship with Williams all the more stunning. The couple had accepted shopping sprees, elaborate wedding gifts, stays in fancy vacation houses, rides in expensive cars, straight cash and watches -- among many, many other things. The list of what the McDonnells took from Williams really has to be seen to be believed. So here it is (click the image for the full list):
There is simply no way that any politician who was as allegedly able and ambitious as McDonnell would not understand that the relationship between his family and Williams was deeply inappropriate. It's inconceivable. And yet, that was the case that the McDonnells sought to make in the weeks-long trial that saw almost seven dozen witnesses called. McDonnell, his lawyers argued, was simply doing for Williams what he would do for any Virginia businessman hoping to get attention for a product. (Williams was pushing a dietary supplement called Anatabloc.) That eye-rollingly-difficult-to-believe justification for the parade of gifts showered on the McDonnells was made even less believable by a number of former aides to the governor and First Lady who said they had repeatedly warned the two of the impropriety of their relationship with Williams.
The extent of that relationship -- as detailed first by Helderman and then by the prosecutors - was such that there seemed very little doubt that after three days of deliberation the jury would return a guilty verdict on at least some of the 14 counts. That the jury convicted McDonnell of all 11 counts of public corruption speaks to the conclusiveness of the evidence presented against him and the tremendous folly of his actions.
In the end -- and this is the end although McDonnell has yet to be sentenced -- I am left with a feeling of amazement at the vast gap between how McDonnell was regarded (including by me) as recently as two years ago and who he turned out to be. His judgment, which was touted as one of his best attributes, wound up being one of his worst.
McDonnell's political career has long been over; the jury's decision simply cemented that fact (and then put another two layers of cement on that cement.) But, the professional and personal decline confirmed by a jury of his peers on Thursday remains stunning in its depth and, frankly, dumbness.
Politicians: They're just like us -- for better and, in this case, worse.