The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Maureen McDonnell and the changing image of the political wife

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell was sentenced to a year and a day in prison in her corruption case. (Steve Helber/AP)

Former Virginia first lady Maureen McDonnell raised the specter of Adam and Eve at her sentencing trial Friday, framing her and her husband's downfall just as U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer had done before. It was true, she said, that she had let the “serpent” — businessman Jonnie R. Williams — into the governor's mansion.

“The venom from that snake has poisoned my marriage, has poisoned my family and has poisoned the commonwealth that I love,” said McDonnell, who was sentenced to one year and one day for conspiring to lend the prestige of the governor’s office to Williams in exchange for loans, vacations and luxury goods. Her husband, former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R), was previously sentenced to two years.

That vivid imagery of the easily charmed, greedy and status-hungry political wife now stands firmly alongside that other, more common trope – "the good wife" with the fake grin.

McDonnell's sentencing comes as Cylvia Hayes, fiancee of now-ex-Oregon governor John Kitzhaber (D), adds to the roster of political spouses who get mixed up in real or perceived mutual wrongdoing.

Jailed former congressman Jesse Jackson Jr.'s (D-Ill.) wife, Sandi, makes the cut. Even when there is no sex involved, women, some who are, in fact, guilty, seem to get the blame – a trend Time outlined back in August.

Notably, the judge himself seemed to be on the hunt for the stand-by-your man political wife. There was "the good Maureen" and that "other Maureen," he said.

“It’s difficult to get to the heart of who Mrs. McDonnell truly is,” Spencer said.

This very same sentiment could be said of almost every prominent political wife. It is particularly true of first ladies who must often fold themselves into a role that has few official duties, no salary and isn't really a job at all. It is all made up, with ceremonial duties (often just photo ops) that require clothes and makeup and smiles all around.

The rulebook basically amounts to this: First, do no harm. For McDonnell, the battle seemed to be fitting herself into her fairy-tale idea of what the fake job supposedly demanded of her. Her downfall highlights the outsized and downright silly expectations that come with the non-job that is the first lady role.

McDonnell's legacy will be trying too hard to fill it and losing herself and her freedom in the process.