Bob Franken: Virginia courthouse melodrama

Is it any wonder that with all the grindingly oppressive news these days, matters that are tragic and vital, the first item I seek out when I pick up the paper is about the relatively frivolous disintegration of a high-level marriage. At least that’s the soap opera defense being peddled by the attorneys at the corruption trial for the loving couple — or unloving, if you believe how they’re being presented to the jury by their own lawyers. They’re attempting to sow doubt about charges that former Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell and his wife Maureen accepted financial help from a businessman, or fast-talking hustler if you prefer, who was lavishing money and expensive favors on them in exchange for state help in promoting his questionable medical product.

In case you don’t pay attention to trash news, here’s what you’ve been missing: Bob and Maureen are accused of doing official favors for Jonnie Williams, who was promoting his supplement created from tobacco. Williams was making large loans to the McDonnells, financing a shopping spree for the missus, helping pay for the lavish wedding of the McDonnells’ daughter, acquiring a Rolex watch for the governor, as well as funding vacations. He even arranged for a Ferrari for use on one of those outings.

That’s where the collapsed marriage comes in. Defense attorneys are trying to make the case that the two were at each other’s throat, that things had deteriorated to the point that they were incapable of agreeing on anything, including a conspiracy to accept bribes from Mr. Williams. Oh, and by the way, Maureen had a “crush” on Jonnie.

She’s presented as a screaming shrew, abusive to everyone, including her staff members, who routinely called her a “nutbag.” Again, remember, this is the defense’s version ... aggressively laid out by the hubby. So aggressively that there are those who grumble that the guy one witness described as a goody two-shoes “Boy Scout” was more than willing to take his wife of 38 years and “throw her under the bus.” There’s no word on what their five children think about that, but that sound you hear is chortling from those of us who enjoy watching someone get comeuppance for bullying defenseless subordinates.

And there’s one other factor that fuels the schadenfires: When Bob McDonnell, the candidate, was running for governor in 2009, he never missed an opportunity to show off his beautiful, photogenic family, just made for warm and fuzzy campaign ads. Be honest, don’t you derive a secret pleasure from finding out that Ken and Barbie Doll are more like Mommie and Daddy Dearest?

If we stop and think about it, though, we probably shouldn’t get such enjoyment out of someone’s travails. So let’s ponder the serious question that can be raised about using eight-by-10 glossy images of the family for political gain. That question is, What do the spouse and kids have to do with anything? Having a secure household is not an indicator that one is qualified for leadership. A tumultuous home life could be a disqualification, but short of that, the candidate or officeholder should spare us the ooey-gooey images of spouse and children, particularly when they scream bloody murder when anyone dares look into any shortcomings they might have.

The McDonnells certainly have abandoned that approach. They intentionally are airing their dirty laundry in a desperate attempt to avoid serious jail time by telling the world they’ve been living in a matrimonial prison for some time. If someone doesn’t turn this into a TV series, I’ll be surprised. Actually, come to think of it, it is playing right now on the nightly news.

It’s a drama filled with money, anger, lost love, betrayal, greed, all the usual stuff. When we think about it, in politics, things rarely are what they seem.

Bob Franken is a longtime broadcast journalist, including 20 years at CNN.

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