RICHMOND — They threw mom under the bus. Then they threw momma from the train. And finally, a federal judge threw her into jail. Maureen McDonnell, the disgraced former first lady of Virginia, was sentenced to a year and a day in prison, though she’ll remain free while her lawyers pursue an appeal. But she told U.S. District Judge James R. Spencer, “I have no one to blame but myself.” Petula is a columnist for The Washington Post’s local team who writes about homeless shelters, gun control, high heels, high school choirs, the politics of parenting, jails, abortion clinics, mayors, modern families, strip clubs and gas prices, among other things. View ArchiveFacebookGoogle+RSS It was the first time she’d spoken on her own behalf. Hesitating, halting and crying, she made her case before a judge, who was treated, often, as a marriage counselor by the McDonnell defense. “This case, as it related to Mrs. McDonnell, is puzzling and oftentimes bizarre,” Spencer said. The family’s self-cannibalizing strategy to keep running over their matriarch and blaming her for their troubles, as well as the evidence he saw in court, stumped him. He had a tough time, he said, getting to the heart of who Maureen McDonnell really is. Then he came upon a glowing letter of support that helped provide an answer. The couple wrote that they’ve only known the good Maureen, not the greedy, mean-spirited woman portrayed in the trial. That sentiment “gave voice to the duality,” Spencer said. There is “good Maureen” — the doting mom, the loving wife, the frugal and hard-working woman who never asked for the spotlight. And there is “bad Maureen,” the woman who took that shopping spree in New York, the one who boxed up the fancy dresses once she heard there was trouble, the woman who snapped at her staff when she became overwhelmed. Or, as Spencer so eloquently put it, she was “humiliating and embarrassing others from her unearned perch of power.” Who among us doesn’t have more than one side? Jail time for McDonnell won’t be easy, but it won’t be the hardest thing she’s been through. “My marriage is broken, my family is hurting and my reputation is in tatters,” she told Spencer. There is a lesson for all elected officials in the McDonnells’ downfall. The entitlement, the assumption that they are above the law, that they are somehow owed something for their hard work doesn’t mean they won’t get caught when they bend the rules. But there is a larger, universal lesson in this sad spectacle for the rest of us.
And it has to do with marriage and relationships and the balance of power. Maureen McDonnell never wanted a life in politics. She made that clear in her appeal before the court, as did her character witnesses. Her people included friends, relatives, Bible study women. They knew the good Maureen, the woman who always volunteered to help, who is the glue, the strength, the one holding everyone else together. There were lots of Bob McDonnell’s people, too. Because her life, of course, was all about him. They talked about the initiatives and programs that she started and ran as first lady. The most surprising witness was Elizabeth Mancano, a policy liaison for the governor who once signed a group letter sent to then-Gov. McDonnell about his wife’s awful behavior. “There are two sides to the story,” said Mancano, who helped craft the first lady’s initiatives to help military families, women in business, health and wellness and economic development, in explaining why she took the stand in Maureen’s defense. The time when she was ranting and raging in the governor’s mansion? This was during the period that her father, her mother and her father-in-law died, her sister nearly died while waiting for a lung transplant, her youngest two children left home and she was just starting to grapple with menopause. While all this was going on, Maureen McDonnell, with little more than a high school education, had to give speeches and banter with business people and wear the right clothes, say the right things and live the life of a person she never aspired to be. Or knew how to be. Mancano said she had to coach the nervous and overwhelmed first lady before every single speaking event. “It was never easy getting ready for those events,” she said. Maureen McDonnell compared herself to other first ladies, she freaked out, she worried about not measuring up. Well, yeah. That’s something almost every woman I know does, from time to time, and they aren’t even public figures. Nearly every witness said Maureen McDonnell’s biggest fear — always — was “disappointing Bob.” This is the man who forged ahead with his career after they had five children, not listening to the wife who told him it was all too much. She worked three jobs while she was nursing her third daughter, so her husband could go to law school. During his campaigns, the girls rode bikes and mom pulled the little twin boys behind her in a wagon as she schlepped door to door with him. He wasn’t around much, but she cleared the schedules and orchestrated family dinners whenever he did make it home. At the governor’s mansion, he had even less time for them. “If we wanted to spend time with our dad, we had to call his scheduler,” said the McDonnells’ youngest daughter, Rachel McDonnell. He was busy, sure. But the governor also admitted that often, he stayed late at work, checking to see if his wife had gone to bed yet, so he didn’t have to deal with her anxieties. The other word that everyone used? “Alone.” And also, “lonely.” No wonder Maureen was charmed by a snake like Johnnie Williams, the dietary supplement hawker who gave them $177,000 in gifts and loans. At least someone came to her door. And no wonder she thought a new dress and designer coats and bags he bought her — the kind she’d never had before — would help her look like she belonged in this new world of hers that she couldn’t seem to get right. It’s like that argument we all have with our spouses, partners, teachers, bosses, parents or kids. “Why are you screaming and freaking out!?” they demand. And you say, “Because you don’t listen to me unless I freak out!” Her’s was a high-stakes and ultimately illegal version of that freakout. Not an excuse. But maybe an explanation for why Bad Maureen came to be. The McDonnells, with parents who were newly-convicted felons, tried to recapture their forgotten closeness as a family over Christmas, Rachel said. They watched years worth of old family videos and laughed and remembered what it was like before dad had his meteoric rise in politics and was seen as a possible presidential contender. Rachel noticed something in all those family scenes. Dad and the kids were the stars. “My mom wasn’t in those videos,” she said. “She was the one always filming.” And entire courtroom of women nodded their heads in recognition at that. Every one of those women know what it is to be invisible. And sometimes, when it comes to a marriage, it’s the worst thing you can be. E-mail: [email protected] Twitter: @petulad