Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Bobby we hardly knew ye

"Governor, I know Bob McDonnell. Bob McDonnell was a friend of mine.  You are no Bob McDonnell."

Maybe it's an exaggeration to say that Gov. McDonnell and I were friends back when I covered the legislature full time and he was one of the Republicans' leading lights in the House of Delegates. But we were certainly friendly acquaintances.

He, along with now Sen. Frank Wagner, was one of the few guys on the GOP side in the House then who  you'd want to have a beer with. And we had a couple. We didn't agree about much politically, but we could discuss it reasonably.

We had a good enough relationship that I could jokingly suggest bills or amendments he might want to introduce, usually things no Republican in his right mind would propose.

And we were friendly enough that he came to me and asked for an explanation of the press corps' behavior after Republicans took control of the House.

When Democrats had control the first group of reporters into the House Chamber usually sat on the bench behind the back row of Democrats.. We continued to do that after Republicans took control.

"We're in charge now, why are you guys still sitting over there," McDonnell asked me. "It looks like you're on their side." (I think he intended the pun).

I explained the reasons to him. First, the Democrats leadership, Dick Cranwell and Alan Diamonstein, sat on the back row. The Republican leadership sat in the midst of their caucus, so they weren't any more accessible if you were sitting on the back row on their side.

And there was another reason.

"They come back and tell us jokes," I said. "Cranwell and Diamonstein and Chip Woodrum and Jay DeBoer are funny."

"Hey, we've got some funny guys," McDonnell countered "Jack Reid sits on the back row."

At that point, I only knew former Del. Reid from his behavior on the floor of the House, where he was a jerk and a bully.

"Yeah, but his idea of a joke is an old lady falling on the sidewalk while running for her bus," I told the future governor.

(That same year, Del. Reid and I were dinner companions at the Capitol Correspondents' dinner, and he was in fact funny. And also a Red Sox fan.  It's hard to hate somebody who is a Sox fan.)

The point of this long introduction is that I knew and liked Bob McDonnell when he ran for governor.  I told Democrats he'd be hard to beat. Turned out he was impossible to beat.

Which makes me wonder how he's gone so far wrong now.

Last year he was being touted as a possible Republican vice presidential candidate. This year  he's looking more like a possible cell mate for former Del. Phil Hamilton.

A federal grand jury is investigating McDonnell's links with Star Scientific, a nutrient supplement   maker. McDonnell has received campaign contributions and gifts from the company's founder, including $15,000 to pay for catering at McDonnell's daughter's wedding, a gift that was not initially reported.

There's also a probe of irregularities in the Governor's Mansion kitchen, for which the former chef may face charges. He's reportedly told investigators of  "abuse" by Mrs. McDonnell, who allegedly re-directed food and kitchen equipment to her children.

The Bob McDonnell I knew had a lot better sense than this.

You never want to bring any body's spouse into a political story -- in fact most people who've worked in politics would prefer to keep the spouses out of campaigns too, because they are a pain to deal with.

(I can remember sitting in a meeting where a campaign manager basically tried to fire the candidate's wife from the campaign. Somebody got fired, but it wasn't the wife.)

But Mrs. McDonnell seems to be firmly entrenched in the middle of  this story.

The First Lady's staff apparently pushed to hold a promotional event for Star Scientific at the mansion. At least one of the governor's staff -- Tucker Martin -- recognized the impropriety of that.

The sad thing for Martin, and the rest of McDonnell's staff, is they'll now have to lawyer up to deal with the investigation.

Perhaps the answer to why McDonnell would do things that he had to know weren't politically smart, to say the least, is eternal: Love is blind. And deaf. And ethically challenged.

It would be a shame if Bob McDonnell, the first Virginia governor in nearly 30 years to have a positive impact on the state's perennial transportation crisis, is remembered only for petty scandal.


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