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January 23, 2014 4:07 PM Follow the Money, Cherchez La Femme

By Ed Kilgore

The scandal enveloping former VA Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife, who are joined not just in matrimony but in a felony corruption indictment, is already descending into pop culture territory. Slate’s Dahlia Lithwick is right in warning that Maureen McDonnell is rapidly becoming the media fall-guy (or -gal?) for the wrong-doing:

I read the indictment as reflecting pretty equal-opportunity grossness, but the media temptation to allocate disproportionate blame at the aging beauty must be too great. The Times is hardly the only offender by the way. The Blame Maureen meme is spreading: Politico calls her “Lady Macbeth with an AmEx card” and accuses her of leading her husband astray. (Note that in the Times photo, the former governor is a broken man while his wife glares at him and mentally shops for spot removers to get all the damn blood off the de la Renta.)
The implication that it was the former NFL cheerleader and her quest for designer shoes and gowns that brought the McDonnells down is kind of a journalistic chip shot. Cue the citations to Calista Gingrich and Sarah Palin and all the countless silly women who shop their families into political ruin. If you reside chiefly in reality TV land, such accusations fit the stereotypes perfectly. But the truth is that McDonnell was just as profligate and greedy as his wife, and the indictment proves it. So why is his own fondness for racking up exorbitant golf expenses relegated to the last disembodied paragraph of the Times piece? Is it because in the hierarchy of political greed, golfing, and private jets rank as legitimate expenses whereas couture dresses and shoes are foolish? Remember: When men are extravagant it’s manly. When women do it, it’s tacky.

While I agree with Lithwick entirely on the cherchez la femme media coverage, I think it’s mainly just another data point in favor of my longstanding half-serious proposal for a constitutional amendment banning any official role for (or media coverage of) family members of elected officials or candidates seeking elected office. It’s an atavistic subtext of American politics probably attributable to our lack of (and ill-suppressed desire for) Royal Families and other aristocratic claptrap. Stop it and then Maureen McDonnell can just be a guest other than a Central Figure in her husband’s inauguration, and probably won’t feel the need to shake down petitioners for gubernatorial favors.

But getting back to old Bob, I suspect his avarice was attributable to something less amenable to cure by constitutional amendment or any other remedy beyond a cultural change. Governors spend a lot of time around very wealthy people. It’s a bipartisan affliction, but is likely worse for Republicans, who are ideologically committed to the proposition that Job Creators are to be praised and succored as the source of all material improvement and as moral exemplars for the less successful.

So you have to figure that at some point in all the hobnobbing with Captains of Industry and Scions of Great Fortunes, a thought bubble will appear above the gubernatorial head, reading: They’re successful, I’m successful. Hell, I’m near the very top of my profession. Shouldn’t I dress as well and eat and drink as well and motor-vate as well and keep up with time as well as my peers in the Winner-Take-All Society? If they earned it, haven’t I, too?

It’s a seductive line of thought, no doubt, and for pols who fear they may not have enough time post-office to accumulate the trappings of a comfortable retirement from corporate board appointments and legal partnerships and other semi-no-show-but-highly-lucrative perches, it might be powerful, particularly if, like Bob McDonnell, you got caught on the wrong side of a real estate bubble.

In any event, I tend to resist the story-line (promoted at the New Yorker by Amy Davidson) that it’s the pettiness of the McDonnell graft that makes the scandal sing. It doesn’t really matter how high up the income and status hierarchy the McDonnells hoped to climb via influence-peddling. The real problem is the pernicious idea that success and virtue must be reflected in outward trappings lest others doubt they exist.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

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