On Feb. 24, 2012, Bob McDonnell was in a fix. With Mitt Romney’s VP selection process looming and McDonnell viewed as a real contender, the Virginia Legislature had very inconveniently descended into a divisive debate about mandating invasive ultrasounds for women seeking abortions.
As McDonnell walked out of a POLITICO event at the Newseum in Washington, he faced a battery of local TV cameras that were there for one purpose: to pin down McDonnell on the culture-war battle riveting Richmond.
It was the kind of moment that sends many politicians racing for the exits, with aides shouting, “No questions!” But McDonnell seemed delighted as he bounded over to greet the press throng. “Are you guys here to ask about my education plan?” he joked.
He then patiently and deftly swatted the questions away — “You can’t believe everything you hear in the national press” — giving the impression of a man thoroughly enjoying himself. His smile and peppy manner seemed almost like a taunt, as if saying to the reporters: C’mon, can’t you guys throw any tougher punches than that?
McDonnell is no longer giving the impression of a man thoroughly enjoying himself, as he and his wife, Maureen, face down a 14-count federal corruption indictment. But his bravura performance two years ago still echoes poignantly, displaying the love of the game — and McDonnell’s unquestioned skill at it — that for a time made McDonnell one of the most promising leaders in Republican politics.
As that moment reflects, it has always been difficult to pin down McDonnell’s persona — or even to understand what made him tick behind his square jaw and perfectly combed hair. Now, as McDonnell faces the real prospect of ending his public life as a felon, it is harder than ever to answer the question: Who is Bob McDonnell, anyway?
When he ran for governor five years ago, the people of Virginia were introduced to Bob McDonnell the zealot: a religious extremist tutored at Pat Robertson’s university, a man Democrats warned would try to keep women in the home and make it easier for criminals to get guns.
The labels didn’t fit. McDonnell won his 2009 governor’s race easily and avoided social issues in office.
Next, Americans met McDonnell, the modern-day Mr. Republican: a beaming politician of total integrity and boundless personal confidence, a man who governed more or less from the center, passing landmark transportation reform and writing the playbook for GOP swing-state victory.
That wasn’t quite right, either. By the end of his four-year term, McDonnell was snarled in a gift-giving investigation that was at least tawdry, if not actually criminal.
Finally, we met McDonnell the dupe: a well-intentioned man, pure of heart but weak in dealing with the people around him, led cluelessly into dangerous legal territory by an acquisitive and ill-tempered wife — Lady Macbeth with an Amex card.
The indictment handed down Tuesday against both McDonnells gives the lie to that portrayal, as well. In a 43-page document filed in federal district court, the former GOP governor is depicted by prosecutors as a man preoccupied with improving his family’s financial condition, going well out of his way to accommodate his financial benefactor, Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, and communicating directly and often with the former first lady about various money-making enterprises.
The federal justice system will have the final word on whether McDonnell broke the law and disgraced his office. Arriving at an assessment of McDonnell as a person, and as a political character of the times, may be a longer and even more complicated process.
Voters will have to weigh the McDonnell who wrote an incendiary Regent University thesis against the wedding-cake figurine who campaigned on an anodyne “Bob’s for Jobs” slogan, and to try to separate out the deft negotiator who crafted a landmark transit-funding deal from the cash-strapped dad who — according to prosecutors — reveled in having sudden access to luxury brands like Ferrari and Rolex.