Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell speaks outside the Supreme Court in April. (Andrew Harnik/Associated Press)

AFTER FOUR years of dragging Virginia and his family through the mud with tawdry tales of what any layman would recognize as bribery, it turns out the punishment for former governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) will not be prison time but abject disgrace.

That’s the effect of the Justice Department’s decision Thursday to drop the official corruption case against Mr. McDonnell, despite recommendations by federal prosecutors in Virginia who still believed they could secure a felony conviction against him. The case’s resolution also lifts the threat of further prosecution against Mr. McDonnell’s wife, Maureen, whose brief tenure as Virginia’s first lady endowed her with a titanic sense of entitlement.

The Justice Department’s decision follows a decision by the Supreme Court in June vacating Mr. McDonnell’s conviction and leaving prosecutors with little realistic chance of securing a conviction under the court’s crabbed definition of official corruption. The court’s ruling provides comfort for future sticky-fingered politicians, who will find it easier to line their pockets while leading supplicants and suitors by the nose.

The McDonnells’ story is as hackneyed as any in America’s lurid history of political graft. A politician of some talent and unobjectionable views, whose good looks and respectable bearing are judged worthy by voters, is elevated by stages to lofty office. Once installed, he performs his official duties competently while, hidden from public view, he rubs shoulders with a conga line of well-heeled, solicitous and ethically agnostic favor-seekers.

In the McDonnells’ case, one of them, businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr., saw advantage in plying the first couple with tens of thousands of dollars in loans, gifts, favors and vacations, a potpourri of generosity in return for which he clearly hoped for favorable state treatment for his company’s tobacco-based nutritional supplement. In fact, he got it. Of thousands of products launched by Virginia firms during Mr. McDonnell’s term, few of them had the ceremonial imprimatur granted Mr. Williams’s product, which was the centerpiece of a luncheon at the governor’s mansion in Richmond.

The pungent aroma of corruption still lingers from that and other episodes — the Rolex for the governor; the New York shopping spree for his wife; the lake holidays for the whole McDonnell family — which Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. characterized, with monumental understatement, as “distasteful.” But Mr. Roberts, writing for the court, found too little evidence that Mr. McDonnell had reciprocated by extending favorable treatment that was adequately overt and obviously conclusive to qualify as “official acts” in return for the businessman’s largesse.

For Mr. McDonnell, the case’s final disposition means freedom from jail, but not from the political oblivion he so richly deserves. Apologists for the former governor are already blaming prosecutors for ruining his life and are declaring him blameless. In fact, he brought his travails on himself, and, whether or not his conduct met the narrow legal definition of illegality, his atrocious judgment was inexcusable.