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Spousal Secrets No More

Posted on Aug 22, 2014

By Eugene Robinson

Gage Skidmore (CC-BY-SA)

How far would you go to stay out of jail? Would you publicly humiliate your wife of 38 years, portraying her as some kind of shrieking harridan? Would you put the innermost secrets of your marriage on display, inviting voyeurs to rummage at will?

For Robert McDonnell, the former Virginia governor on trial for alleged corruption, the answers appear to be: “As far as necessary,” “Hey, why not?” and “Sounds like a plan.”

McDonnell’s testimony this week in a Richmond federal courtroom about his wife Maureen’s psychological turmoil has been both cringe-worthy and compelling. It has been clear for some time that McDonnell’s strategy for winning acquittal amounted to what could be called the “crazy wife” defense. But only when he took the stand did it become apparent how thoroughly he intended to humiliate the “soul mate” he still claims to love.

McDonnell disclosed Thursday that he moved out of the family’s home shortly before the trial began. “I knew there was no way I could go home after a day in court and have to rehash the day’s events with my wife,” he testified.

I guess not. Anyone who said such things in public about his or her spouse would be advised to clear out.

McDonnell testified that Maureen McDonnell was so volatile that the entire staff at the governor’s mansion signed a petition threatening to quit if her behavior didn’t improve. “She would yell at me,” he told the court. “She would tell me I was taking staff’s side, that I didn’t know what was really going on over there.”

He said he believed his wife needed professional counseling, though it was unclear whether he tried very hard to convince her to seek it. He spoke of the family’s severe financial problems, which included large credit card bills, and said that “it just seemed like there was too much stuff that she was buying.” Prior testimony has indicated, however, that unwise real estate investments caused most of the problem—and that Robert McDonnell, not Maureen, ran the family finances.

The former governor’s defense presented a private note he wrote to his wife in 2011 that said, in part, “You told me again yesterday that you would wreck my things and how bad I am. It hurt me to my core. I have asked and prayed to God so many times to take this anger away and heal whatever hurt is causing it ... some going back years and years. He has not yet answered those prayers.”

To top it off, when asked by his lawyer if he thinks his wife had a “strong emotional attachment” to another man, McDonnell answered, “Yes.” When pressed whether this encompassed a physical affair, he said tepidly, “I don’t believe so.”

No, I wouldn’t recommend that he go home just yet.

Why is McDonnell trashing his wife in such a caddish manner? Because the man with whom Maureen McDonnell had that emotional bond, entrepreneur Jonnie Williams, gave the McDonnells more than $165,000 in gifts and loans. Prosecutors allege that McDonnell—in return—helped promote Williams’ firm, Star Scientific, which made dietary supplements.

McDonnell’s defense is basically that it was his wife who had the close relationship with Williams and was the beneficiary of most of his largesse, which included a lavish shopping trip to New York. From other testimony, however, we know that there were gifts that more directly benefited McDonnell—golf clubs, greens fees, a Rolex, trips on a private jet, the use of a Ferrari.

McDonnell claims that, in any event, he didn’t promise or deliver anything out of the ordinary to Williams in return. If Williams believed otherwise, then the profligate, needy, “emotional” Maureen McDonnell must have given him the wrong impression.

It is sad that a politician with a reputation as a Virginia gentleman would mount such an ungallant defense. And it is clear that in this case, at least, it took two to make a dysfunctional marriage.

After all, McDonnell has testified about occasions on which he did take the side of staff members in disputes with his wife, rightly or wrongly. He has said he was happy about her friendship with Williams. He has told of being “emotionally, physically unavailable” to his wife. He has confessed to working late because “I couldn’t come home and listen” to her complaints.

A jury will decide whether McDonnell was an honest public servant. By his own account, he wasn’t much of a husband.

Eugene Robinson’s e-mail address is eugenerobinson(at)
© 2014, Washington Post Writers Group


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