January 28 2014
A friend of mine recently expressed surprise that clean-cut former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell suddenly seems as if he hails from the more politically colorful state of Louisiana than the Old Dominion.
Whatever happens legally to Bob McDonnell, once a comer in Republican politics, and his wife Maureen, who have been indicted on federal corruption charges, the couple shows how the American political class more and more expects to live large. Apparently, being first lady of Virginia isn't that cool unless you can do it in Oscar. (Here and here.)
According to the indictment, Maureen McDonnell was taken on a $20,000 shopping spree by Jonnie Williams, CEO of a dietary supplements company. Williams was going to buy Mrs. McDonnell an Oscar de la Renta dress for her husband’s inaugural ball until an aide got wind of the impending purchase and put a stop to it.
Mrs. McDonnell, according to the indictment, then sent this email to Williams:
I need to talk to you about Inaugural clothing budget. I need answers and Bob is screaming about the thousands I’m charging up in credit card debt. We are broke, have an unconscionable amount in credit card debt already, and this Inaugural is killing us!! I need answers and I need help, and I need to get this done.
Mrs. McDonnell didn’t get the Oscar de la Renta for her husband’s inaugural ball but later Williams indulged her by allowing her to spend $10, 999 at the Oscar de la Renta showroom in New York. Another $5,685 was spent at Louis Vuitton, and approximately $2,604 at Bergdorf Goodman. Williams was seated next to the governor at a New York dinner. Oh, and Mrs. McDonnell was right about one thing: immense credit card debt tends to be "unconscionable."
When the McDonnells visited Jonnie Williams’ at a vacation retreat on Smith Mountain Lake in Virginia, she reportedly called beforehand to “to ask whether JW’s Ferrari would be at the house” for the governor to drive. No problem: a Williams employee drove the Farrarri from Richmond to Smith Mountain. At Mrs. McDonnel’s request, Williams bought the governor a Rolex. You can read other details about the former first couple’s penchant for a celebrity lifestyle here.
If the charges in the indictment prove true, it will be a novel ending for a man who held the office once occupied by Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and James Monroe. At first, this looks like plain, old-fashioned cupidity. But I am wondering if it doesn’t represent something newly-widespread in American politics—a sense of grandiosity.
We will see this grandiosity of the political class on fulsome display tonight at the State of the Union address. In a piece entitled “Great Caesar’s Ghost,” Kevin Williamson observes:
The State of the Union is only one example of the deepening, terrifying cult of the state that has taken root here. Many heads of state — and some royals, for that matter — fly on commercial aircraft.
Presidents of the Swiss federation and members of the federal council receive . . . an unlimited train pass. They have occasional access to a Cessna maintained by the air force, but are known to use mass transit — just like the people they are elected to represent. An American president stages a Roman triumph every time he heads out for a round of golf. The president’s household costs well more than $1 billion annually to operate.
The president’s visage is more ubiquitous than was Vladimir Lenin’s in his prime, his reach Alexandrian, his sense of immortality (they call it “legacy”) pharaonic. Washington has become a deeply weird and alien place, a Renaissance court with armored sedans and hundred-million-dollar paydays.
This grandiosity goes hand and hand with the president’s notion that he can bypass Congress and govern with his pen and phone. That the McDonnells belong to the party that is not usually associated with glitz and celebrity lifestyles apparently didn’t save them from the allure.