"I can resist anything except temptation."
-Oscar Wilde, "Lady Windermere's Fan"
Of the myriad things wrong with politics in America today, perhaps the most insidious is that too many of our representatives view elected office as a career path rather than a public service. Our Founders never intended for political careerists to run the country. They knew the corrupting influence of political power, and luckily for the rest of us, they possessed the strength of character to resist it.
If only we had more men like Washington and Jefferson in office today. Instead, we have a veritable pantheon of self-seeking, self-interested egotists unable to resist the siren song of corruption. A glaring example of this pervasive problem may be found in the Old Dominion. Virginia governor Bob McDonnell is under fire for playing the oldest game in the book: accepting gifts in exchange for political access and favors. Slate's Dahlia Lithwick profiled the scandal in her recent article, "Virginia is Corrupt."
"Embattled Gov. Bob McDonnell has probably just cratered a once-promising political career over $145,000 in undisclosed gifts – each worthy of its own episode of Real Housewives of Richmond – including a $6,500 Rolex, a New York shopping spree for his wife, limo rides, catering for his daughter's wedding, and a ride in a Ferrari. Is it shocking that McDonnell and his wife twisted themselves into pretzels to shill for the donor company's weird tobacco-based nutritional supplements?"
Undoubtedly these revelations come as a great disappointment to many McDonnell supporters in Virginia and around the country. Not long ago, McDonnell was a “Golden Boy” of the GOP. So much about him bespoke integrity and earnestness, principle and trustworthiness. Talk of presidential potential circulated widely. Now, he and his family's shameless abuse of the Governor's position have made him radioactive and his poll numbers have plummeted.
The Governor's response to this scandal is perhaps the most appalling part of the story. In an act of rhetorical sophistry that would make even Bill Clinton blush, McDonnell maintains that he has done nothing wrong since the undisclosed gifts he's being criticized for were not gifts to him but to his family members. From the Washington Post:
"Previously, The Post reported that Mr. McDonnell failed to disclose a $15,000 gift from a Virginia businessman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr., which helped cover the catering bill at the 2011 wedding of the governor's daughter. Mr. McDonnell insisted he was not required to disclose the gift because it was made to his daughter rather than to him. However, it was the governor who had contracted for the catering service, and the gift from Mr. Williams covered the governor's obligation, not his daughter's. Moreover, when it turned out to have been an overpayment, it was the first lady, Maureen McDonnell, who was reimbursed."
Let's see if we can follow the Governor's logic: Having a political benefactor cover large expense that would have otherwise fallen to him (the parents of the bride generally assume financial responsibility for a wedding reception) is in no way an ethical violation. Right. Even if, for sake of argument, McDonnell didn't stand to benefit financially from having the catering costs of his daughter's wedding covered – say, if his daughter and her hubby-to-be independently financed their own wedding – there is still the question of why Star Scientific would pay for the catering. What interest do they have in Bob McDonnell's daughter's wedding? What motive could the company possibly have other than currying favor with her father?
But wait, there's more!
"Mrs. McDonnell is also the focus of the latest embarrassing disclosure — a $36,000 payment to her last year by the charitable arm of one of the state's biggest coal companies. . . . In what appears to be a dodge of state laws, the governor listed his wife as a paid trustee of the charity, which she was not, rather than as a consultant, which she was. Under state law, that distinction allowed Mr. McDonnell to withhold the information that his wife received an annual salary exceeding $10,000 in return for attending two or three meetings and giving advice. The FBI and state prosecutors and police have been looking into Mr. McDonnell's finances. At the same time, the governor has refused to discuss other compensation or gifts his wife may have received. His reticence and what appear to be repeated instances of using definitional sleight of hand to skirt state disclosure laws have deepened suspicions that more damaging revelations about the governor may be forthcoming."
Bob McDonnell's attempts to defend the indefensible is exactly the reason why so many Americans have become utterly jaded about politics. Instead of conducting themselves with restraint and transparency, politicians like McDonnell obfuscate and manipulate. In the face of a mountain of damnable evidence showing that he and his family used his public position for private gain, this man insists with a straight face that he's done nothing legally wrong. Generally, Governor, when you have to twist and spin in order to tease out the difference between the legal and moral implications of your actions, you're on the wrong side of the argument. The American people tend to reject those kinds of lawyerly distinctions.
The main point here? The Governor's conduct shows the corrupting influence of money on politics and the ease with which politicians delude themselves. As they see it, they work hard and make great sacrifices on behalf of the people, so they are entitled to profit from their position. Power, prestige, and money are potent aphrodisiacs. It's hard to resist the seduction.
But integrity and strength of character are things that should distinguish our elected officials from the common run of men. They are supposed to conduct themselves in a manner that is above reproach. Catering costs and shopping sprees are certainly no excuse for betraying your commitment to the people.
Sadly, Mr. McDonnell and his grabby wife embraced, rather than resisted the temptations that come with the Governor's mansion. The governor's credibility is damaged beyond repair. Regardless of whether Mr. McDonnell is in technical compliance with the law, he is an embarrassment to his office. He should apologize for his indefensible conduct and resign.