Maureen McDonnell flanked by daughters Rachel (left) and Cailin.  Old view of Maureen: wicked witch of the Governor's Mansion. New view: miserable spouse looking for attention. Photo credit: Associated Press.
Maureen McDonnell flanked by daughters Rachel (left) and Cailin. Old view of Maureen: wicked witch of the Governor’s Mansion. New view: tragic figure. Photo credit: Associated Press.

In his post on the McDonnell trial, Peter Galuszka asked a profound question (something I don’t normally give him credit for!). Does living in the fishbowl of the Governor’s Mansion, with all the attendant pressure, put incalculable strain on a governor’s domestic life? “What should ‘public service’ be and how much should it take from one’s private life,” Peter wondered. “More importantly, why can’t it support men and women who pursue it? Should it be only for the rich?”

I had that question in the back of my mind this morning as I combed through the media reports of yesterday’s events. All newspaper accounts led with the revelation that the marriage between Bob and Maureen McDonnell had essentially broken down, and that Maureen had a “crush” on Jonnie R. Williams Sr., the then-CEO of Star Scientific who sought favors from the McDonnells to help his business. Maureen and Jonnie exchanged 1,200 phone calls and text messages. As William Burck, Maureen McDonnell’s lead defense attorney, said: “Unlike the other man in her life, Jonnie Williams paid attention to Maureen McDonnell.”

That picture received confirmation from testimony recounted by the Virginian-Pilot. Prosecutors called Cailin McDonnell Young to the stand to recount circumstances surrounding Williams’ offer to cover the $15,000 expense associated with her wedding reception. On cross-examination she revealed the following:

Young said that, during Bob McDonnell’s tenure as governor and his previous service as attorney general, “I hardly ever saw my father.”

“Anytime I wanted to see my dad, I had to go through a scheduler,” she said.

A daughter needs a scheduler to see her dad? That’s brutal. But that’s what family life is like with a man who works 14- to 16-hour days. Life couldn’t have been much better for Maureen McDonnell. For a long time, I regarded her as the heavy in this whole affair. But now I have a keener appreciation of the domestic dynamics. She spent much of her time feeling isolated, frustrated and anxious. She often lost her temper with her husband and staff. For the first time, I feel a modicum of sympathy for her. She was a lonely, stressed-out and unhappy woman.

None of this excuses her actions, much less McDonnell’s alleged failure to exercise full disclosure. But it does provide context. I return to Peter’s question regarding what kind of financial pressure does being governor put on a First Family of modest means? I would expand the question to include, what kind of strain does the time demands of public office put on a family?


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19 responses to “Misery in High Places”

  1. Jim – I will try to answer both your and Peter’s question about the time demands of public office. My view comes from being a fairly close observer of state government since 1980. I also acknowledge much generalization.

    From the founding of this country until sometime in the 1980s, serving as an elected official in public office was a part-time job. Office holders were community leaders, most likely bankers, lawyers, or other businessmen.
    Sometimes businesses, likely looking out for their own self interests, went out of the way to permit their employees to hold elected office. When I was in Greensboro, NC in the late 70’s, the long-time mayor held the title in one of the then-big banks as VP for Community Relations.

    In many areas, they did little campaigning for office due to machine politics and restricted voting requirements, but those went away gradually beginning after WWII and with the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Regardless, many state elected officials I observed were statesmen, who worked with other office holders to serve the common good.

    Somewhere along the way, being an elected official became a full-time political job. Money is part of the problem – money to run for office and stay there; to amass a “war chest” to give to other like-minded politicians. In order to get that money, you have to work for it. Hold or attend all those events sponsored by organizations that want to “rent” a politician or two or three for the upcoming legislative session. Spend hours on the phone asking for donations. And so on.

    In addition, the politician had to take on additional work because he or she is in continuous campaign mode. Once a politician has been elected to office, a new campaign begins, whether to stay in office or to seek a higher office.

    Then there are other political factors that take work – looking statesman-like or avoiding gaffs in an era of the 24/7 news cycle, Twitter, Facebook, cell phone cameras. Or trying to assuage constituents upset because their politician does not have the proper position on a local, state, national, or international issues.

    All that work takes time and it requires one to rearrange their priorities, sometimes to the detriment of their family. Many of the long-ago statesmen I observed kept their priorities straight, at least in the public eye. If they lost an election or chose not to run, it was not the end of their world. While some went on to become “rainmakers” for their business, most returned to their community and resumed a normal life. You have seen politicians today who resigned their office for family or personal business reason, but many just keep on campaigning.

    There are many other factors that I could mention that have contributed to the politicization of public office (e.g., globalization that has deprived many communities of their business leaders, the rise of the Me Generation, etc.). Further, I do not wish to heap praise on the “good old days” because they were not that good for many citizens. My point is that the demands of being an elected office holder these days does not always attract the best and the brightest for many reasons, one being the demands on family life.


    1. Bosun, you’ve hit on many important aspects of the issue. Speaking personally, I have given serious thought to running for public office, mainly because there are so many things that I would like to see accomplished in local government. But when I think about the immense personal sacrifice and all the time spent to raise money, etc., I realize it’s not for me. (Many people would say that’s a good thing!) I like spending time with my family and friends — I don’t want to give that up.

  2. larryg Avatar

    geeze guys – how many people get elected to office and manage to do a balance between family and letting staff and advisers deal with issues?

    listening here – one gets the impression that if you become elected – that you give up your family.


    we have how many elected in Virginia – at the local and state level that ended up doing bad things because the job broke up their families?

    Jesus H. KeeeeeRISSSSTTT

    Let’s hear Jim talk the same way about what happened to poor old Phil Puckett. How about it?

    Was Puckett just a really good guy, who got stomped by the sacrifices of public office that, in turn, caused him to behave the way he did?

    when I see the apologists for McDonnell extend their sympathy to others, regardless of party affiliation, I might believe the sincerity of their concerns…

    but really, what is so shameful about telling the people of Virginia that even as a Governor, you have modest finances and cannot afford a fancy wedding for your daughter?

    there’s more to this story – and it’s not pretty.

    1. Larry, you’re not reading what I write with any care. I’m trying to understand what happened. And, like Peter, I’m wondering about the pressures of the job. I’m not making excuses for the McDonnells’ behavior. If they broke the law, there are no excuses.

  3. While there are certainly factors that make it much more of an issue today, the debate about pay and whether one must be wealthy to be an officeholder has raged since the founding. I’m even fairly sure I remember having this discussion over a passage from Aristotle during Classical Political Theory in college, but my memory gets fuzzy there.

    Americans seem desperate to see their political leaders as overpaid leeches living in a world of their own – many oppose salary increases and congressmen can grandstand by returning a portion of their salary. This is grandstanding because the amounts are negligible compared to the money being spent elsewhere. No congressman or governor is helping out the state’s budget deficit by returning any of his salary.

    The reality is that it is a demanding, time-consuming job with a bevy of hidden expenses. And whatever our ideal of the “Average Joe President” may be, the fact is that the president or governor is not – CANNOT – be an Average Joe. He has to put up with the eyes of millions, navigate the complexities of state issues, and constantly wrangle with a peer set that is making far more money than he is.

    Keeping salaries low ensures that this individual will always be someone who has the means already. The few truly middle to upper middle class people who make it (without starting a profitable business or having an unusually lucrative career beforehand) will be easy to capsize with lawsuits (Clintons) or lure with temptations (McDonnells).

    Singapore is an interesting case here. Its leaders (who, granted, have a solid hold on the country) are paid salaries in the millions of dollars. Responding to criticism from opposition leaders, they have replied bluntly that running a nation as large and profitable as Singapore is a complex and tough job – and that the position needs to be able to compete for talent with CEO jobs at major corporations – not dollar for dollar, but within an order of magnitude.

    1. larryg Avatar

      None other than Thomas Jefferson was bankrupt when he died.

      I’m just pointing out that making excuses for illicit behavior is the oldest game in the book and yet there are plenty of people who have the same problems who managed to not engage in nefarious conduct.

      the prisons are full of folks who want to blame the choices they made – on others so, no, I’m not buying it.

      The McDonnells knew the gig before they took it – and if I buy Jim’s “the devil made me do it” explanation – why should I believe that not every other member of the General Assembly is engaged in the same conduct that the McDonnells engaged in.

      I’m actually agog that Jim makes this excuse – when the vast, vast majority of elected officials manage to conduct themselves NOT in the way the McDonnells did.

      I have a very sneaking suspicion that if this was Kaine or Warner that Jim’s ‘sympathy’ would evaporate like water on a sizzling stove.


      1. Larry, This is getting annoying. Please document where I “make excuses” for the McDonnells or advance a “devil-made-me-do-it” defense. I have consistently done the exact opposite.

        I *would* argue that the prosecution’s case ascribes overly simplistic motives to Bob and Maureen McDonnell. But it remains to be see whether that has any bearing on the legality of what they did. For now, I’m simply trying to understand what happened — something you don’t seem interested in doing. You’ve already made your mind up.

        1. larryg Avatar

          Jim – it’s the inconsistency in your argument. Plenty of elected officials and their families encounter the stresses of public service – which are not insignificant but how many of them end up behaving like the McDonnells?

          I actually have SOME sympathy for Bob McDonnell if it was truly a rogue wife deal but the fact he accepted a watch and a wedding tells me he was either willingly complicit or incredibly stupid.

          These are craven people Jim. They played the game to the hilt – and got caught … there is no tragedy here… and your “gee whiz ..let’s let the facts come out. perhaps they were really victims of modern political pressures” mentality is off the trolley – in my view – with respect..

          If we had numerous public officials – on an ongoing basis – who were engaging in what the McDonnells did – there might be some legs to your sympathetic musings.

          but come-on guy – there is no mystery here.. you’re sawing off a limb you’re sitting on – I’ll bet you dinner!

          their opening gambit – “Maureen did it” – did it for me.

          An honorable man – would NEVER let the mother of his 5 kids take that wrap!

  4. Two things really bother me about McDonnell. First, he accepted the Rolex watch. I’d like to know the back story behind that. Second, he omitted required information in his mortgage loan application (I think that’s what the document was). I can’t think of any legitimate explanation for either action. If the evidence supports his narrative, though, I don’t think there’s much else you can pin on the guy. Maureen was out of control.

    We’ll see. I’m simply acknowledging McDonnell’s narrative (while you seem to deny it outright) based on nothing but bluster. Let’s see what the evidence shows.

    That’s what people do when they’re not running a kangaroo court. They listen to both sides and review the evidence.

    1. larryg Avatar

      Jim – you’re talking technicalities. I’m talking about overall behavior.

      Good, honest people – no matter whether they are elected or otherwise – don’t do the stuff they were doing.

      it don’t matter a whit to me what the “verdict” will be in part because he turned down a simple plea deal to accept responsibility for the mortgage paperwork.

      He could have walked away after that – with a smudge .. something he could have politically recovered from in my view.

      He doubled-down instead… and his “defense” – at least at this point is to
      not rebut the facts of the charges but to make excuses based on Maureen – who is, in turn, portraying herself as a women (and kids) forgotten by an “overworked” husband – that caused her to go get involved in really smarmy things…

      where in the H E double LL was HIS STAFF when she was doing this and why did he not totally stay away from the watch and wedding and other things?

      How can Maureen be doing all that stuff and she and McDonnell on the outs – but he personally taking the gifts ?

      this is bad.

      I expected him and her to rebut the charges head on. To claim they did nothing wrong even if it looked bad… but this soap opera stuff totally undermines it.

      here are some synonyms for craven: contemptibly lacking in courage; cowardly, pusillanimous, , gutless , wimpish; abject, ignominious

      this is to me what the “throw Maureen under the bus” opening gambit – is.

      remember when he got up to make his apology and had Maureen and his daughters stand with him?

      there’s something called character – and it’s missing here. They’re both acting like some 3rd rate petty criminals.

  5. LifeOnTheFallLine Avatar

    Aww, poor, modest Bob and Mo, having to get by on a salary of only $175K a year with a free car and security detail versus the median income for Virginians of $67K. But they had five kids! What’s that old compassionate conservative maxim, “If you can’t feed ’em don’t breed ’em?” Maybe he should have been less worried about flossing and more worried about keeping his life in order.

    Heavy is the head that wears the crown and the easiest way to make it lighter is to have staff with autonomy to whom responsibilities can be delegated. The problem is, though, that kind of staffing requires money that at least half our political system wouldn’t vote for because they view that as “big government that is inherently corrupt.”

    1. larryg Avatar

      who’s paying for their defense by the way, anyone know? and where were these generous folks when Maureen was “crushing” for goodies for poor old Bob?

  6. Maureen “had a crush” on Jonnie Williams? Teenaged girls have crushes, middle aged women have affairs. 1,200 text messages?

    If my wife exchanged 1,200 text messages with some guy I’d throw her under the bus too.

    Is Maureen McDonnell uneducated? Is she a rube? Or is she a former Redskins cheerleader who should have learned how to behave at some point in her life?

    Now it’s all Bob McDonnell’s fault? Was he having an affair? Was he exchanging 1,200 text messages with some paramour?

    “She spent much of her time feeling isolated, frustrated and anxious. She often lost her temper with her husband and staff.”.

    Really? So her staff is also somehow at fault for her mood swings? She was an unhappy woman so none of her idiotic actions should count against her? Her husband pushed her into the arms of Jonnie Williams? Did he also force her to lose control with the staff?

    Now the daughter is piling on? She couldn’t see Dadsy whenever she wanted? My Dad was in the Navy. He was often gone for long periods of time in exotic locales like Vietnam. I guess I should have told my Mom to find a boyfriend I could hit up for money.

    1. larryg Avatar

      ” Later in the day, Robert “Bobby” McDonnell testified that a week or so after a golf game with Jonnie Williams at the Homestead, Williams had a new set of gold clubs delivered to him at the Executive Mansion. “My father’s reaction was that I should give them back,” that the gift was too excessive, said the younger McDonnell.

      “I didn’t think that I should return them,” he said. He said he had a friendship with Williams, whom he saw as a mentor, that was separate from his parents’ friendship with Williams. He said his mother sided with him. “I won the argument because I wound up keeping the clubs.””


      ” Before Bobby McDonnell took the stand, Phil Owenby, the general manager of the exclusive Kinloch Golf Club in Goochland County, took the jury into a world few, if any of them, know. Membership at the club is capped at 500 and it costs $50,000 to join and the annual dues are $11,000.

      Jurors were shown photos of the lush course and inside the 26,000-square-foot club house. From May 2011 to November 2012 McDonnell and/or his sons played golf several times at the course, the guests of Jonnie Williams. According to the indictment, one trip, on May 29, 2011, McDonnell and his family charged $2,380 to Williams’ account including $410 in merchandise from the pro shop and $500 in caddy fees.

      Though a number of purchases were made by the McDonnells at the pro shop — the indictment seeks the forfeiture of various golf shirts and golf bags — none of it was ever paid for by McDonnell though the shop takes credit cards, said Owenby.”

      I have a hard time believing this was Maureen running amok…..sounds like Bob was much enjoying the “fruits” of Maureens labors…also

      but you know what is totally out of this world?

      That Bob and Maureen apparently are clueless as to how these kinds of revelations will be received by the public – and the jurors. Who, in their right mind, would go forward with a trial that they KNEW would bare all of this and not think it would be harmful? these guys are not only craven – they are clueless.

      Jim Bacon is going to have to eat his hat – no question about it.

  7. billsblots Avatar

    gosh larry, either your reading comprehension isn’t very good or you are blinded by some accumulated bitterness to infer certain things into JAB’s statements that just are not there.

    1. larryg Avatar

      re: ” A daughter needs a scheduler to see her dad? That’s brutal. But that’s what family life is like with a man who works 14- to 16-hour days. Life couldn’t have been much better for Maureen McDonnell. For a long time, I regarded her as the heavy in this whole affair. But now I have a keener appreciation of the domestic dynamics. She spent much of her time feeling isolated, frustrated and anxious. She often lost her temper with her husband and staff. For the first time, I feel a modicum of sympathy for her. She was a lonely, stressed-out and unhappy woman.” (these are Bacons words)

      re: ” And when it came to the former first family of Virginia, dietary supplement impresario Jonnie Williams Sr. appeared to spare no expense: Golf outings for Gov. Bob McDonnell and his twin sons at one of the country’s most exclusive clubs.
      The use of Williams’ vacation home at Smith Mountain Lake.
      A plane trip to the Homestead on his private jet, and commercial tickets for the McDonnell daughters to attend a bachelorette party in Savannah, Ga.”

      these are some facts coming out of the trial…

      so he played golf with his sons… drove a Ferrari with his wife from Smith Mountain lake…???


      I have NO partisan dog in this hunt. I would be equally contemptuous of anyone who conducted themselves in this manner.

      Bacon is whining about the “stress” of the job essentially damaging his family relationships… but the facts coming out of the trial – indicate that he actually played golf in person with his sons and drove Maureen around in a Ferrari.

      these are craven folks … and the tears seem very crocodile

  8. larryg Avatar

    I TOO was somewhat sympathetic to the Gov when the narrative was that Maureen ran amok…. and Bob was largely unaware…

    But then Bacon says that Bob was a work-obsessed, uncaring weenie who caused Maureens “problems”…

    and he said this – inexplicably – right before facts starting coming out at the trial.

    for me – the facts that are coming out – totally undermine the previous conventional wisdom as well as Jim Bacon’s sympathetic musings.

    You don’t go playing golf with your sons courtesy of Jonnie Williams and blame it on Maureen running amok or the Gov being a workaholic with no time for his family.

    next phony theory please..

  9. I am with LarryG on this. I’ve been playing golf for 35 years and I have never heard of “gold golf clubs”. What does that even mean? How do you rack up $500 in caddie fees? Two caddies at $250 apiece? They must have been the two happiest caddies in Virginia that day.

    I belong to RTJ – a club like Kinloch. Nobody would buy a friend’s son a set of clubs. And nobody would accept that gift. A sleeve of balls? Maybe. Pick up the guest fees? Maybe. But a new set of “gold” golf clubs? Nobody pays for a friend’s daughter’s reception. That’s insulting to the Dad. If one of my friends were destitute and needed the money he would insist that they sign a note borrowing the money. If McDonnell weren’t governor there wouldn’t have been any sets of gold golf clubs or $15,000 catering events.

    And who accepts gifts from his wife’s boyfriend (or crush or whatever)? We’ve got a Bob. Now we need a Ted, a Carol and an Alice I guess.

    McDonnell ought to cop a plea and just get this over with. He and his angry wife can spend weekends picking up litter in orange jumpsuits for a year or two.

    1. larryg Avatar

      He AND SHE – COULD have taken a plea and virtually NONE of this would have come out !

      that’s why I say they both are clueless and/or living in denial.

      what in the world were either one of them thinking when they insisted on a jury trial thick with media present?

      both of them are going to be lucky if they don’t get prison time.

      this is ugly beyond belief!

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