Bob McDonnell's shocking stupidity: How could a politician have been this dumb?

Latest GOP governor to humiliate himself -- and break the law -- endured a crazy saga. Here's why it's so surreal

Published September 5, 2014 5:45PM (EDT)

Bob McDonnell        (AP/Steve Helber)
Bob McDonnell (AP/Steve Helber)

On a level of basic human sympathy, it's painful to see anyone, including former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and first lady Maureen McDonnell, sob through the jury's reading of 11 and nine guilty counts, respectively. They have children and grandchildren and, barring an appeal, are likely headed to jail for a significant chunk of time. And that's after, in a desperate, quirky and ultimately unsuccessful defense, they laid bare the daily troubles with their marriage for the world to absorb. It felt dirty to watch the trial, and I, at least, didn't feel it was necessary to write daily updates about the tabloid trash revealed in court on any particular day.

But what must be most painful for the McDonnells right now is the knowledge of how completely avoidable this was. There's nothing even approaching honor or pride in these transgressions. There's no crime here that you can convince yourself was the right call as a statesman; you can't even say, in some sort of Nixonian way, all I had in mind, the whole time, was the good of the people of Virginia. There's nothing like that here, unless you think that Virginians really needed the dietary supplement Anatabloc in order to live long and prosper. Bob and Maureen McDonnell will go down as the first Virginia first couple to go down on criminal charges ... because they took a bunch of cash and golf trips and Rolexes.

Cash, golf trips, Rolexes, vacations, checks, vacations, Ferrari rides: The components of the $100,000+ in gifts and loans that they received from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams Sr., in exchange for using the powers of the governorship to promote his dumb diet pill thing, couldn't have been a shinier bundle of objects for the prosecution to present to the jury. In modern politics, corruption charges are usually more tediously complex: Money was wired here and then laundered via a pass-through, which made its way through another pass-through and was distributed through a foundation before ending up at a nonprofit designed to help such and such's interests with a client trying to change regulations in foreign markets, or whatever. Not in this case. The prosecution just had to show the jury images of the idiot governor showing off his flashy watch that was given to him by the rich businessman for whom he did favors in return. How much simpler could this get? It's only a degree of reality or two away from an old-timey political cartoon of a tuxedoed plutocrat, smoking a cigar, handing over a big bag marked "$$$," to a crooked politician slapping his back and cackling.

God, the stupidity.

Even when the McDonnells realized they'd been caught, and indicted, for cartoonish quid pro quo corruption, they inexplicably continued to roll the dice. You'd think they'd realize, Oh god, they caught us taking lots of money from this guy, better strike a deal! And yet they didn't. Bob McDonnell rejected a plea deal that would have charged him with one felony and let Maureen McDonnell off free. Whoops!

The McDonnells -- or each McDonnell, given the state of their marriage -- must have decided that they had a fantastic chance of defeating this in court. Umm. Did they talk to their lawyers before rejecting that deal? Because the defense -- the now infamous defense -- that they took in court reeked of desperation all the way through. If you're willing to testify for days about the stunning levels of dysfunction in your marriage, as the best hope for your exoneration, doesn't that suggest that you may not have the strongest case? Doesn't that suggest that perhaps you would've been better taking a plea deal? It didn't even cohere. The idea that Bob and Maureen McDonnell were on such bad terms that there was no way they could have had a discussion or two about taking this guy's money just doesn't make sense.

The obvious explanation for Bob McDonnell's tears is that he's going to jail for a while. It would make me cry, too! But you also get the feeling that Bob McDonnell hadn't come to terms with the hubris, and all of the missteps along the way, until this was read. These were crimes of such classic simplicity that a defendant could, at least for a while, convince himself of the unreality of it all. That there's no way he could have gotten caught up in such a self-parody of a scheme, or that a jury would actually send him to jail over these things. Did this really happen?

Yeah, it really did. It's hard to believe for us, too.

By Jim Newell

Jim Newell covers politics and media for Salon.

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