woody zimmerman 118 2007If there has been a more wretched case than that of ex-Governor Bob McDonnell (R-VA) and his wife, Maureen, I’m dashed if I know what it would be. A long-time public servant, a fine governor, a gentleman and an exemplary family man, Gov. McDonnell was found guilty, this past week, on thirteen counts of “corruption” stemming from what the prosecution called “influence selling” while he was in office. His wife was found guilty on nine counts of obstruction of justice with respect to investigations into the case.

The McDonnells were charged with having done favors for wealthy vitamin executive Jonnie Williams in exchange for some $165,000 in gifts and loans which they admitted taking. An AP report stated:

“Williams, who testified under immunity, said he spent freely on the McDonnells to secure their help promoting his tobacco-derived anti-inflammatory supplement Anatabloc as a treatment for ulcers, Alzheimer's and multiple sclerosis.”

From my vantage-point, I can’t work out what the governor actually did for Mr. Williams and his company. Being seen as a “friend” of the governor has some value, to be sure, but when did that become a crime? If it were, most politicians would be in jail. Testifying on his own behalf, Mr. McDonnell claimed that he had done no more than extend routine courtesies to the former CEO of Star Scientific, a Virginia-based dietary supplements company.

The jury did not buy that defense, however. Mr. McDonnell thus becomes the first governor in Virginia’s history to be convicted of a felony related to his tenure in office. His lawyer has said they plan to appeal the case to a higher court. But failing to secure a reversal of the verdict, the governor and his wife could face long prison terms – even under “lenient” sentencing. Mr. McDonnell’s future as possible “presidential timber” is now destroyed. Even if they can avoid prison terms, the McDonnells’ lives are in ruins. They cannot recover from this. Unlike for Bill and Hillary Clinton, compliant media will not rehabilitate them.

Not being an insider to Virginia state politics, I cannot tell if accepting expensive gifts and loans from a business executive is considered routine political behavior for a governor. Mr. McDonnell claimed it to be so. But even if it is, should it be? This kind of thing is bound to blow up if your political enemies learn of it. A child could see this. Only an ambitious prosecutor with opposing political leanings would be needed to complete the destructive scenario.

Would an articulate, conservative governor, with a nice-looking wife and a fine family, actually have “enemies?” These days, how could he not have? Governor McDonnell might have thought he was living in genteel Old Virginny, but clearly those fabulous “old times” down in Dixie have been long forgotten. As Mr. Dooley famously said, “politics ain’t beanbag.”

Nevertheless, “enemies” – whoever they might have been – were not really the McDonnells’ undoing. They were their own worst enemies. I can’t believe that their first instinct was not full disclosure of any proffered gift, followed by its immediate transfer to some state office for distribution to suitable charities. This is absolutely fundamental for any public officeholder. At the national level, what happens to those lion-head robes and exquisitely carved elephant tusks given by African chiefs? They go into a special museum for ceremonial gifts. Ditto for gold crowns, rings, spears, blowguns, etc. The president’s family doesn’t keep these things.

How could the McDonnells not know this? Or – possibly worse – how could they not realize that getting away with accepting (and keeping) expensive gifts on this scale is absolutely impossible? Tickets to the Redskins’ owner’s box? OK, maybe, if fully disclosed. But Rolex watches, expensive duds, thousands in gifts and “loans?” How could this not be noticed? (Was it in small bills, cash?) As my pop used to say, it’s not funny enough to laugh at, but we’re too big to cry.

Suppose Mr. McDonnell had actually gained the vice-presidency, or even the presidency, holding such a naïve view of “gifts.” Just what the country would need – another personal scandal in our top office. Great. That would really have helped the GOP, too.

Verily, Gov. and Mrs. McDonnell are poster-children for my long-held view that aspirants to high office should always possess reasonable amounts of personal wealth. Electing people who lack it, I contend, is asking for trouble at some point, as some dismal examples demonstrate. Although voters seem to clamor for candidates of ordinary means, that preference can be a risky one. We may not like rich people, but they are unlikely to be tempted by a few thousands in used bills.

Maryland Governor Marvin Mandel, who held office from January 1969 to January 1979, was a man of ordinary financial means who fell in with “friends” of dubious value during his tenure. In 1977 he was convicted on charges of mail fraud and racketeering. Part of his difficulty was low pay. His salary was set at $25,000 a year by the Maryland State Constitution. That might have been ample when the constitution was drafted, but by the 1970s it was unsuitable. Only a constitutional amendment could change it. As Mr. Mandel was not independently wealthy, it was natural that some of his rich friends would try to “help” him bridge the gap between his salary and his expenses. He was traveling in fast company.

The result was disastrous for Mr. Mandel. He served nineteen months in the low-security federal prison at Elgin Air Force Base, Florida, before President Ronald Reagan commuted his sentence. In 1987 his conviction was finally overturned by a U. S. District Court judge who based his ruling on an opinion of the U. S. Supreme Court. A year later, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that District Court decision.

I didn’t vote for Governor Mandel, as we differed, politically. But I could see that his low salary and lack of personal wealth set him up for an inevitable crash. Did the issue of personal wealth apply similarly to the McDonnells? Certainly I never heard him described as “rich.” But whatever his financial circumstances were, he and his wife were obviously willing to sell their integrity for “baubles” – as commentator Charles Krauthammer memorably put it. What a miserable business.

In fact, this whole episode is not really about personal wealth. It is about integrity – despite one’s personal financial situation. Have no previous holders of high office been men of ordinary means? Of course they have. Presidents Ulysses Grant, Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower were not wealthy men when they took office, and they were hardly richer when they left it.

In order to provide for his family’s financial future, President Grant dictated his memoirs during the final stages of his terminal throat cancer – finishing just five days before his death. Although betrayed by faithless “friends” during his terms in office, Grant did not profit personally from their financial schemes. Historians describe Grant as “too loyal” to his friends.

truman 1918IMAGE: Harry Truman, ca. 1918

When he left office in 1953, President Truman had no income except his Army pension of $112 a month, as no senate or presidential pensions existed at the time. He signed a book deal which paid him a flat fee of $670,000, but the high tax rates he and his predecessor, FDR, had championed took 2/3 of the money. The high tax was a kind of poetic justice, but it was personally ruinous for Mr. Truman. He later said he would have practically been on relief had he not been able to sell some property left to him by his relatives. He and his wife lived in his late mother-in-law’s house after he left office, as they owned no home of their own. Indeed, Truman’s financial straits probably spurred Congress to enact a presidential pension of $25,000 a year in 1958.

eisenhower dwight mamie 1916IMAGE: Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower, ca. 1916

Having been a five-star general, President Eisenhower was not a poor man when he took office, but he was far from wealthy. He wrote a book of personal memoirs shortly before his death to secure his wife’s financial future. Mrs. Eisenhower survived him by 10 years.

Despite their ordinary financial circumstances, no hint of financial scandal ever touched either Truman or Eisenhower. Such men existed then. Hopefully, some are still out there. Rich or not, we need people of unquestioned integrity for our high offices. I’m sorry that the McDonnells were not in that company. Their loss is a real tragedy for Virginia and the nation.