For a Guy Who Made a Career Out of Moral Marriage, Bob McDonnell Sure Has a Lousy One

What women really think about news, politics, and culture.
Aug. 5 2014 7:22 PM

Focus on the Family

What Bob McDonnell’s Regent University thesis says about his public corruption defense.

Bob and Maureen McDonnells.
We are going to spend the next four weeks wallowing in the murk of the McDonnells’ sham marriage.

Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

When Virginia’s former Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, were charged earlier this year in a 14-count federal indictment, it seemed the story could get no more depressing than it already was. The McDonnells stand accused of trading the prestige of the governor’s office to Jonnie R. Williams and his dubious nutritional supplement company, in return for more than $150,000 in luxury gifts, loans, Manhattan shopping sprees, and junkets. What a sorry tale of Keeping Up With the Governor Joneses. But as the trial opened last week in Richmond the tale became even sadder. It’s no longer just a story of greed and craven opportunism. Now it’s a still life of a ruined marriage. And it stands in rather dramatic contrast to the sacred and pure vision of government-sanctioned marriage and family that McDonnell famously proffered in his 1989 master’s thesis at Regent University and with his careerlong posture as a family-values candidate and fiscally conservative public servant.

Dahlia Lithwick Dahlia Lithwick

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

Instead of talking about public corruption and access to power, we are going to spend the next four weeks wallowing in the murk of the McDonnells’ sham marriage. The couple held themselves out as profoundly religious and moral, the clear-eyed, humble parents of five children. But the McDonnells’ improbable legal defense—and yes this is indeed their co-defense although they have separate lawyers—is that they couldn’t have conspired as a couple to use the governor’s office for personal gain because they suffered “a broken down” marriage and were “barely on speaking terms.”

Why did Maureen McDonnell work as diligently as she did to trade political favors for glittering gifts? The defense team claims she had a “crush” on Williams. (This was evidently news to Williams.) According to the defense, Maureen was never conspiring with her husband to trade on the prestige of the governor’s office. No. She was just a lonely woman in a broken marriage, so desperate for attention that she got her husband a $6,000 Rolex and free rides in Williams’ Ferrari and Learjet. I guess it’s cheating by the transitive property—where you get the guy now known as Maureen’s “favorite playmate”  to finance your husband’s Style Section fantasies. The 1,200 text messages (52 in a single day!) and phone calls that flew between the first lady and the business tycoon during the period covered by the indictment reflect no quid pro quo, the McDonnells’ lawyers contend—more just a sad flirtation fueled by an underappreciated housewife.

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Is the marriage a sham or is the defense a sham? Who knows? The only thing that matters is whether the jurors buy it. That and the fact that the sham marriage defense seems to become a self-fulfilling prophecy as the trial grinds on. At this point, the McDonnells enter the courtroom through separate doorways and sit at adjacent tables. They don’t look at each other. And as Dana Milbank reminds us, much of the marital ugliness on display here would have been avoided if McDonnell had taken a plea deal that “would have let his wife off the hook and would have required him to plead guilty only to a single charge unrelated to his official duties.” (Update, Aug. 6, 2014: This sentence has been updated to clarify that Milbank’s observation about McDonnell’s plea bargain was a direct quote.) But marriage is forever. So says McDonnell’s famous Regent thesis. And nothing says “forever” like blaming your wife for being an everything-but-adulteress until death do you part.    

It’s impossible not to see this tragedy through the rosy lens of McDonnell’s much-scrutinized graduate thesis, authored in 1989 for a master’s in public policy and a J.D. from Regent University. When the Washington Post first reported on the thesis in 2009, it kicked up something of an Internet ruckus about whether it reflected McDonnell’s actual contemporary political views on gender equality (opposed), homosexuality (opposed), birth control (ditto), and welfare (also ditto). McDonnell was 34, married, and a father when he wrote that thesis, but he passed it off as youthful musings, explaining during his run for governor, that voters should not judge him based on a “decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era and haven’t thought about in years.” He publicly claimed that his views had changed over the years. But as the Post noted at the time, “during his 14 years in the General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper, including abortion restrictions, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to favor his view of the traditional family.”  

McDonnell’s views on marriage, family, austerity, personal responsibility, and morality as laid out in the 93-page paper, are worthy of revisiting in light of the drama now playing out in Richmond. It’s not so much a question of whether he governed by these values anymore, as whether he and his family lived by them. The thesis was an argument for infusing Christian Republican values into government policy. His view was that family is an institution that predates civil government and thus may not be defined by it. This is because “the Creator instituted marriage and family in Eden.” The family and marriage are celebrated as the best safeguard against immorality and selfishness. The thesis is a lengthy exposition on the ways modern government has disrupted and undermined traditional families and a road map back to a Christian view of the primacy of family as an organizing unit. There is a lengthy section on the evils of government-assisted child care that enables women to work. There is a bracing reminder about the need for fiscal austerity(!). There are some nice zingers about liberals (who “measure equality on a factual economic basis”). And there is a lot of talk about the evils of welfare and government aid and the need for self-reliance(!!). There are strong words for families who “reject the traditional values of responsibility and accountability.” And the tour de force comes at the end with a laundry list of the “real enemies of the traditional family—materialism, irresponsibility, feminism, lust, and ultimately selfishness,” which McDonnell concedes are largely outside the sphere of government control. Those qualities now stand as the organizing principles of the current McDonnell defense strategy, although—to be clear—the materialism, irresponsibility, lust, and selfishness are all massed on Maureen’s side of the ledger. And the dreaded feminism is nowhere in evidence.

You need read no further than Page 39 of the document, where McDonnell whimsically muses: “Must government subsidize the choices of a generation with an increased appetite for the materialistic components of the American Dream?” to understand the real failure of the thesis as a political and moral argument: Materialism and greed know no ideological, class, or religious bounds. It isn’t just the greedy welfare beneficiaries who are seduced by the need for pretty, pretty things. Yet the lectures about morality and austerity unerringly seem to come from the guy with the free Rolex. People who live in glass governor’s mansions really shouldn’t throw stones.

Dahlia Lithwick writes about the courts and the law for Slate. Follow her on Twitter.

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