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Sunday, July 21, 2013
I’m not the sort to take glee in others’ troubles, although there are certainly a few politicians I’ve encountered whose descent into ignominy wouldn’t cost me a moment’s sleep. But this one hurts.
A darkening dread has shadowed me in recent weeks as a handful of preening politicians and commentators clamored to be the first to call for Gov. Bob McDonnell’s resignation. As I write these words, I don’t know whether he will fight to clear his name or leave office in disgrace. Neither choice brings comfort.
I’ve known McDonnell for the better part of 15 years. He can be simultaneously naïve and smugly self-righteous, a combination that irritated the hell out of me on a regular basis. Yet I couldn’t help but like him, maybe because he so obviously wants to be liked.
In my earliest memories of him, he’s careening around the state Capitol from dawn until midnight toting files overstuffed with spreadsheets and half-drafted bills. He often seemed to get mired in the minutiae of the legislative process and lose sight of the bigger picture. But he was smart and ambitious; worth knowing, I figured.
When I took a job with the Virginian-Pilot newspaper in Hampton Roads, I asked the Virginia Beach delegate for a tour of his home turf. He was conscientious in carrying out even the most mundane of tasks, like showing a new reporter the ropes. When I arrived at his law office that day, he had typed up an agenda that included appointments with what seemed like half of the city.
His political ascent was swift and sure, but McDonnell himself has always been unpredictable. Like a pushmi-pullyu, he seems torn between conflicting internal forces.
Should he take the path of political expedience urged by obstructionist partisans who condemn compromise as weakness? Or should he give in to his manic urge to fix every problem?
Some days he’s stuck, unable to make everyone happy and thus miserable himself. Other days I’ve admired flashes of statesmanship and courage, like his marathon mea culpa over a poorly worded Confederate History Month proclamation and his successful passage of a transportation bill even after it had strayed far from his original plan. Still other times he took the easy way out of a jam, but I got some satisfaction in knowing that he felt guilty about it.
There’s no satisfaction to be had now as news stories pile up detailing vacations, clothing and a Rolex watch lavished on the McDonnell family by a businessman in a tax dispute with the state.
I’ve asked myself many times how could this have happened? How could such a Type A, nit-picky personality have such bad judgment?
That goes double since McDonnell is an attorney. The rest of us mortals depend on lawyers to keep us out of trouble, or if that fails, get us out. We assume they can take care of themselves.
But as the headlines shifted from gaudy gifts to loans and cash hand-outs and the damages rose into six figures, a different picture emerges of a man methodically stitching together legal loopholes, not recognizing that he was weaving the net that would entrap him.
A man so absorbed in trying to untangle his own financial troubles that he lost sight of the larger ethical picture, or ignored it.
The thought makes me angry, but mostly I feel an overwhelming sorrow, for him and for the many good people who have devoted years of their lives to him because they believed in his fundamental decency. He has let them down. He has let us all down.
Journalists who cover the state Capitol tend to be a cynical group, but few could stomach the job if they truly believed all politicians were as venal as their jokes and grumbles suggest.
Perhaps it would be easier if I could have believed that.
Now McDonnell is surrounding himself with a revolving cast of lawyers and damage control specialists. Maybe they will come up with a reassuring response to the question, “How could this have happened?”
But it won’t count for much unless it comes from the only man who really knows the answer.
Nuckols is editorial page editor of The Roanoke Times.
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