It was a clip that could make even a political opponent smile: candidate Bob McDonnell strolling down a sun-dappled sidewalk in the Northern Virginia suburb where he grew up as his kids scoot by, daughters on their way to Grandpa's, sons tossing a football and asking if he was up for a game, and ending as his wife encircles his waist with an arm as he says, "After all, we face the same challenges that you do."
But after winning that 2009 election, McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, may have had their own special set of problems — or so they suggested in the first week of their trial on federal charges that they sought or accepted more than $160,000 in gifts and loans for themselves and family members from businessman Jonnie R. Williams Sr.
They painted a picture of a broken marriage and the faulty judgment that so often goes along with that.
And in doing so, they're raising difficult questions about how Virginia politicians and their families manage — and should manage — their personal and business affairs while in office.
The McDonnell lawyers spoke of a lonely woman, isolated in the executive mansion by the 14-hour workdays of a governor who bragged of his frugality — of a couple whose lack of communication meant neither saw anything untoward in a shower of fancy clothes, expensive holidays, free air travel and five-figure no-interest loans from a man seeking state support for his efforts to market a food supplement.
"Politicians like to present themselves as family-oriented," said Quentin Kidd, a political scientist at Christopher Newport University. "They use their families a lot — in commercials, in public venues, to campaign for them, etc., and in doing so they are presenting a certain image to voters as a wholesome family. ... Sometimes, as in this case, the behavior of the family demonstrates that the image presented to voters was not, in fact, completely true."
In other words, spouses can get elected officials in a lot of trouble.
Pennsylvania Congresswoman Marjorie Margolies-Mezvinsky dropped a 2000 bid for the U.S. Senate when her husband had to fight off accusations he defrauded investors. He was later convicted. In 1984, voters turned against vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro when her husband declined for a time to release his tax records.
"No one in high public office can insist on a big zone of privacy for his or her spouse," said University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato.
One thing is clear from the first week: Maureen McDonnell will be at the center of the trial.
The McDonnells had asked for separate trials. The federal judge hearing the case said no.
But there were earlier hints of tension. As the controversy over undeclared gifts from Williams erupted late in McDonnell's term, and he insisted he had traded no favors, hints of a first lady with fancy tastes and a high-handed manner kept seeping out of the executive mansion.
"There has been strong suspicion by close operatives that the first lady was behind most of the problematic issues," said Virginia Tech political scientist Bob Denton.
"I think he is and was a man of integrity, good intentions and public spirited. The office, perhaps, changed the family in less desirable ways," Denton said. "There is indeed a lesson to this story for all families of public servants to take heed."
A key to both McDonnells' future will be their argument that a governor's wife is not a state official.
"The role of first lady is acknowledged as one of influence," said Denton. "Polls have shown that up to 20 percent do claim the spouse influences their vote. Whether we like it or not, we do get a 'team' whether we realize it or not. That's reality."
The spouse of a president or governor has an odd role to play, said Sabato.
"It is an unpaid, undefined position, yet practically, it is a public office with considerable responsibilities and influence," he said. "Of course, the taxpayers already pay for staff, household and personal, assigned to the governor's spouse. The latter alone is reason enough to expect certain standards of behavior and a level of activity that benefits the state."
That seems to be the way voters see things, said Kidd, at CNU.
"My sense is that most people see the first lady of Virginia as a public-like official. They see her doing ceremonial things like visiting schools, cutting ribbons and giving speeches, and so they see her as performing public-like roles," he said.
Still, first ladies — and governors, too — are only people. Another key to the McDonnells' case will be their ability to make jurors sympathize with one woman's sad story and one man's argument that he did nothing different from any other Virginia politician in accepting gifts from a businessman-friend.
"While I think that voters will mostly see this as an isolated situation, I do think this trial will make voters more skeptical generally, especially if the McDonnell defense team carries on the course they seem to have set, which is to portray the family as being in complete disarray and dysfunctional," said Kidd.
"The problem is that the prosecutors and the press will go back and present contrasts of what the McDonnells were saying and doing then with what they are saying in the courtroom," he added. "The contrasts will not be good, as they will likely show that either the McDonnells were dysfunctional but hiding it, or that they are not being truthful in the courtroom."
And while Virginia Tech's Denton said "so many baby boomers, the argument goes, could actually relate to issues of adultery and marital problems because of personal experience," he believes there is growing skepticism about politicians who hit family values issues hard, as McDonnell had.
"Those who fall short provide fodder for claims of hypocrisy," he said.
But, he added, "The other side is one of forgiveness, especially if politicians are repentant and ask for forgiveness."
As a result, Denton said, "In this case, I do think he will gain some sympathy. Those highly partisan will show the most sympathy or be dismissive of his character. Those in the broad middle will clearly see the burden of this trial upon his family, the personal embarrassment to him and the commonwealth."
Kidd, at CNU, isn't so sure.
"If the first day of trial is any indication, I don't see how either Bob or Maureen come through as sympathetic figures," he said.
Longer term, the effect of the McDonnells' story, at least as it unfolded in court last week, is not yet clear, said U.Va.'s Sabato.
"It's too soon to know how Maureen McDonnell will affect the long-term image or reality of the first lady position. Clearly, first ladies, and eventually gentlemen, won't be accepting anything other than token gifts, and they will watch their Ps and Qs far more than Mrs. McDonnell did. Beyond that, we have to let the courtroom soap opera play out," he said. "Weeks of day-in, day-out coverage can change perceptions, not to mention the verdict."
Ress can be reached by phone at 757-247-4535.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun