There are a number of unhappy conclusions to be drawn from the sad details of the indictment of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and his wife on federal corruption charges yesterday. Whether you believed McDonnell was a legitimate contender for national office (as many of his backers did until yesterday’s revelations), he was an able governor and a talented politician who had every reason to look forward to other opportunities to serve his country even if he hadn’t sought the 2016 Republican presidential nomination. That’s over now, even in the unlikely event that he is acquitted of the numerous criminal charges of taking gifts from a wealthy contributor.
One of the facts of American political life exemplified by the McDonnell case is the dilemma faced by all politicians who are not independently wealthy. Lacking their own sources of riches they must raise vast sums of money almost continually and thus find themselves thrown together with unusually wealthy people whose lifestyles are very different from those of the middle class from which many politicians spring. If elected, their duties include entertaining on a scale that is difficult, if not impossible, to manage on the admittedly generous salaries they are paid for holding public office. The temptation to accept what at first may seem kindnesses from their rich friends—who often have a clear financial motive to ingratiate themselves with officials—can overwhelm their better judgment. Though Americans are deeply cynical about the ethics of their politicians, most in public office do manage to avoid trouble. But a certain percentage fall prey to the attraction of easy money and lavish gifts
But rather than merely demonstrating the McDonnells’ poor judgment or the advantages the wealthy enjoy when running for and staying in office, what this episode also illuminates is the importance of public morals and character in our politicians.
While we are continually told by pundits and even much of the public that all they care about are results, the perils of modern democracy turn out to place greater emphasis than we might have thought on the need to recruit upstanding people to run for office.
Let’s dispense with the defense being offered by McDonnell and his lawyers that his hobnobbing with a wealthy contributor is no worse than what President Obama or other politicians do while raising money. McDonnell claims that if the government can’t prove that he actually traded some benefit for the gifts he received, he’s guilty of nothing other than poor judgment. But the line between fundraising and bribes is, in reality, a bright one. As much as we lament the influence of money on politics—something that no law or set of laws can ever prevent—or the complicated nature of many of the laws that limit gifts, the rules about what a politician can and cannot do are not complicated. Office-holders can take money for their campaigns but they can’t take personal compensation as a perk of the job. As Byron York writes in the Washington Examiner, the facts about the watches, the cash, and the stocks McDonnell and his wife took from a pharmaceutical mogul are sordid. So were their attempts to cover all this up.
While McDonnell and his wife don’t come off as sympathetic figures in the account presented by the government or even in their own defense, the path of politicians who don’t enter public office with private wealth is not an easy one. The demands on their private purses as well as the fact that they are obligated to spend a great deal of time in the homes of the rich can make many feel out of place. While, as York notes, they can easily cash in on their former status once they leave office, while they are in public harness they and their families must be satisfied with what they have. That is why many talented people who can earn far more in the private sector want no part of politics even without considering the scrutiny and abuse that comes with it.
But it also means those who place their desire for power and their potential to do good above their desire for money or privacy must be made of sterner stuff than the McDonnells. Moreover, the process of selecting candidates also requires voters and journalists who often treat the private failings of candidates as less important than their stands on issues to rethink that notion. As much as we should avoid prurient investigations into candidates’ private lives or treating minor peccadilloes as outweighing an individual’s potential to be an effective leader, public morals do matter. As much as our democracy needs men and women of intelligence and ability, it also needs people of good character. When we ignore that aspect of a candidate, focusing only on the resume, we can — and often do — wind up with scandals, both fiscal and moral, that debase our democracy, undermine the rule of law and decrease public respect for office-holders and thus government itself.