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Poor little rich ex-governor

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Until this past week, one might have thought of the McDonnells as a family that bantered about taking the Ferrari for a joyride, the next golf outing at the club or what to engrave on the Rolex, all while enjoying a lavish spread in the Executive Mansion dining room.

But the federal indictment of former Virginia governor Robert McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, offers a glimpse of a family that may have been having a very different, and much more difficult, conversation around the kitchen table. The McDonnell household appears to have been in serious financial distress — in a way that many Americans should be able to identify with.

They were having trouble paying credit card bills and covering mortgage payments. They had college expenses to deal with and a wedding to plan for.

"We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!!," Maureen McDonnell wrote in a December 2009 email to a senior staffer.

"Kids. Asking for help," the governor said in a February 2013 email to his five children. We "need to rent the beach houses at Sandbridge more."

OK, so maybe the average American isn’t worrying about having to pay the mortgage on beach houses, plural. But the McDonnells were like a lot of people who tried to take advantage of the real estate boom and ended up in over their heads. Near the peak of the market, they invested in property in a Richmond suburb, at the Wintergreen resort and at Virginia Beach. Those properties had lost $600,000 in value as of the most recent assessments.

The two Virginia Beach rentals McDonnell mentioned in his email were a particular source of concern. The houses "required capital infusions of up to $60,000 annually," according to the indictment, and the McDonnells had to rely on loans from family and friends — at least until they met Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams, who offered to help them out.

It’s easier to understand why they would have accepted loans to pay the mortgage or to pay off credit card debt than why they would have said yes to the Rolex, the Oscar de la Renta dresses and the other items on the indictment’s list of property subject to forfeiture. But consider that the McDonnells were people of relatively modest means trying to adjust to life — and expectations — in the Executive Mansion on Capitol Square.

Bob and Maureen McDonnell are the sort of couple who got engaged in a parking lot over a pack of cheap beer. "It was very simple," she recalled in a 2010 interview with the Washington Post. "Our life always was."

Before entering politics, Bob served in the Army (fulfilling the terms of an ROTC scholarship), worked for a medical-supply company and practised law as a prosecutor in Virginia Beach. Maureen had been a Washington Redskins cheerleader and then a stay-at-home mom.

It may be hard to muster much sympathy for them when, as governor, Bob McDonnell was earning $175,000 a year — three times the median household income in Virginia. But the demands on them were higher, too. And their middle-class background put them at odds with most of Virginia’s previous first families. Former governor Mark Warner is one of the wealthiest people in the state and is now the second-richest member of Congress, with an estimated net worth of $257 million. McDonnell’s immediate predecessor, Tim Kaine, has an estimated net worth of a mere $1.4 million, but his family was comfortable in elite political circles by virtue of the fact that his wife, Anne Holton, had grown up in them, as the daughter of another Virginia governor.

For the McDonnells, by all accounts, the transition was difficult, and it compounded their financial stress. On top of those mortgage payments, credit card statements and college tuition bills, they had to worry about things like what to wear to state functions. When Maureen McDonnell realized that she was more casually dressed than her socialite guests at one luncheon, she went upstairs and changed, according to an account in The Post.

The extent to which the McDonnells compared themselves with their predecessors was perhaps most apparent when Maureen McDonnell arranged to have portraits painted of Virginia’s 10 living first ladies. She talked about wanting to honour their contributions to the state. But she was clearly happy to see her image in the lineup of revered women — the daughter of a president (Lynda Bird Johnson Robb) and the daughter of a governor among them.

For her portrait, McDonnell posed in her peacock-blue inaugural gown — a dress that had been a source of angst, according to the indictment, after staffers told her it would be inappropriate to have Star Scientific’s Williams buy an Oscar de la Renta version for her. Some observers snickered that the portrait looked like it had been Photoshopped. Tom Camden, a former curator of the state art collection, told The Post that McDonnell had asked for alterations. "I understand how Mrs. McDonnell thought," he said. "And I think she wanted her best image, whether it was necessarily historically accurate or not."

It was about vanity, yes, but it was also about striving to play the part and fit in. The McDonnells were trying to keep up with the Joneses. And in the upper echelons of Virginia politics, the Joneses tend to have a certain look and a certain lifestyle.

None of this is to excuse the McDonnells’ ethically and legally questionable behaviour. We can identify with some of their struggles and impulses without condoning the use of the governor’s office for personal gain.

Their relatively modest background should have made them realize what their constituents would see: What they were doing was outrageous.

Quentin Kidd is a political science professor at Christopher Newport University and a co-author of The Rational Southerner.

— The Washington Post

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