When now-convicted, former governor Bob McDonnell was running for the state legislature 23 years ago in Virginia Beach, he was always straight with me, a reporter covering his campaign. I came to like and admire the cartoonishly clean-cut man with the picture-perfect wife and children.
So it was with sadness and some disbelief that I watched a jury last week convict him and his wife Maureen of corruption. I have a hard time believing the man I knew would trade his office for dollars. I can imagine that man, being a man, bending or breaking rules to placate an angry and confused spouse. Which it certainly seemed like she was, based on the evidence presented in trial.
I got to know McDonnell back in 1991 because of the unique position one has when covering a local political race, such as for city council or the state legislature. Despite the importance of such jobs, there is often only one reporter covering them, usually the reporter of a major metropolitan daily newspaper. Local television or radio news usually ignore such elections until a few days before the vote. (My apologies to my broadcast colleagues if I sound dismissive.)
That’s how it was with me, as a young reporter for The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. Because of that, a certain intimacy grew between the candidates and me. I hung out with them a lot, going to their events and chatting casually before and afterward as well as interviewing them for stories.
McDonnell was one of a crop of young Republicans in the sprawling suburbs of Virginia Beach, my beat, going up against incumbent or better-funded Democrats. Most of these young Republicans won.
I was somewhat wary of McDonnell initially because his law degree was from televangelist’s Pat Robertson’s university, which had recently changed its name to Regent University, instead of “CBN University,” for Christian Broadcasting Network. Regent University was very young, and it seemed weird to me to get your law degree from a place with an overt theology. I half expected McDonnell to be a barely concealed religious fanatic, rigid in his thinking and persona.
Instead, I found a relaxed and charming man, who made no attempt to convert me or inject religion into every conversation. Most striking was his almost comical handsomeness -- he looked like the cartoon figure from the satirical political comic strip then around, Bob Forehead -- and his telegenically pretty wife and multiple children.
It’s a myth that political persuasions shape coverage. What does shape press coverage by reporters is their personal interactions with a candidate. Reporters can hold grudges, and there are moments when you can choose to give a candidate the benefit of the doubt.
What I found with McDonnell was that he was always straight with me. He answered my pointed questions about taxes and services without obfuscation, and I never noted him spinning me in any sort of devious way. To a reporter, that goes a long way in buying trust and respect. We also had some good discussions about policy. We made a connection.
He won that election, beating a longtime Democratic incumbent. I eventually left The Virginian-Pilot, my hometown newspaper. But I kept track of McDonnell. I was surprised he was elected first attorney general, and then governor but pleased as well. I suspected that he won because voters, even if they weren’t evangelical, trusted him to do what’s right for them. He seemed to be doing a pretty good job as governor. In one column for Governing, I cited him as a positive example of someone getting something done -- in this case a transportation funding bill -- at a time when most states were caught in partisan gridlock.
Of course I followed his trial closely. The most naked moment was when his attorney presented as evidence a long and frank email McDonnell wrote to his wife several years ago, before the scandal broke, pleading with her. It must have been humiliating having such a personal correspondence in public. It did seem a searing and irrefutable evidence of a marriage on the rocks, and a man doing everything he could to save it and reconcile himself to his wife.
It was also evidence that McDonnell’s religious faith was still strong, given how he spoke to God in the letter almost as much as to his wife.
I shouldn’t second guess a jury, but I still have trouble believing the man I knew would do something so stupid and so dishonest as to trade his office for what in the end was a relatively small pile of cash. Once out of office, a former governor could have easily cashed in for far more, if he chose.
As the McDonnells prepare to face a retrial and possibly prison, it’s hard to imagine how bad he must feel, going from governor to convicted criminal. I hope his religious faith stays with him. I can’t help but wish him luck.