The former governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, and his wife Maureen McDonnell, are under indictment and on trial in federal court for allegedly receiving gifts, loans, and trips from Jonnie Williams Sr., who was the CEO of Star Scientific when the events in the indictment occurred.
Politico, a prominent political website, ran an Associated Press article this morning focused on the testimony of Mary-Shea Sutherland, former chief of staff to first lady Maureen McDonnell. Sutherland testified that Maureen McDonnell had frequent bizarre outbursts of temper, and described a terrible work environment. The testimony was in the context of a defense assertion that Maureen Sullivan had a crush on Williams, was not communicating with Bob McDonnell because of strained relations, and that, therefore, there could not have been a conspiracy to take the improper gifts because the McDonnells were not talking to each other.
Sutherland's testimony described a tense soap operatic atmosphere in the governor's mansion, but she also stated that she saw no evidence that Maureen McDonnell had an infatuation with Williams, or that the relationship between the governor and his wife was strained.
Now that I've established the melodramatic aspects of the recent testimony: why am I writing about this?
Scandals come and scandals go. Members of both major political parties get caught up in corruption scandals. Politics has a ready pool of the four major elements of scandals: money, power, celebrity, and sex, so it isn't surprising that it's a source of high profile scandals and crimes.
I think the McDonnell scandal has instructional aspects, though.
First, the public shouldn't pay undue attention to the superficial public images of political figures. Public relations machinery is going to paint politicians as superhuman, and the press often colludes in this, deliberately or sloppily, because "this elected official is different" is a better story than "this elected official is human".
The second thing to focus on is the gap between the public expectation of opulent lifestyle of top officials, and the salaries they are paid. There are two possible solutions for this. The first is to lower the expectation that elected officials will behave like show business celebrites, and to recognize that on a middle class salary, officials have to dress and entertain on a middle class budget. Alternatively, the public could subsidize the opulent lifestyle, either directly or through increased salary.
I say none of this to excuse any illegal behavior on the part of the McDonnells. But we need to recognize that our officials are humans, and to structure the way we finance their living arrangements with that recognition in mind. Also, the press should present a realistic picture of political figures from the time they enter public view, to the time they leave,