RICHMOND, Va. — In the midst of the soap opera at Richmond’s Federal Courthouse, it’s easy to forget the vast historic significance of this trial.
On Wednesday, former Gov. Bob McDonnell did what the 70 previous Virginia governors didn’t: he took the stand to defend himself against a criminal corruption charge.
Prompted by his attorney, McDonnell said he it was “exhilarating” becoming the governor of Virginia, having the “same job as Thomas Jefferson and Patrick Henry.”
“There was a particular irony to that comment,” said CBC-6 political analyst Bob Holsworth. McDonnell certainly has made history following in those statesmen’s footsteps, Holsworth added, “in a way he could’ve never imagined.”
Irony aside, this was a marked change from the soap opera the trail quickly became, featuring the cool, likeable sleaziness of Jonnie Williams – the admitted attempted influence buyer and purchaser of $5,000-a-bottle of cognac – and the Olympic gold medal trashing of the former first lady – the very effective bimbo defense that linked Williams and Maureen McDonnell and distanced the two text-swapping schemers from the governor.
On Wednesday, it was like the jury was treated to a field trip to the governor’s office. McDonnell was polished and professional on the stand, having every attribute a Boy Scout would have, looking the jury straight in their eyes like he was behind his desk instead of on the stand.
“There was a lot of eye contact with the jury,” I commented to him as he walked away from the cameras that bristled Broad Street outside the court. McDonnell looked me in the eye and said, “Yes.”
Always a powerful performer on the campaign trail, McDonnell is in the campaign of his life, Holsworth said. “He’s campaigning for his reputation, his family, his personal security, staying out of jail even. This is an extraordinarily important performance.”
Holsworth said the former governor did a “very good job” during his first hour and a half on the stand.
I’d say an excellent job, really.
His lawyer led Bob McDonnell through a fascinating, behind-the-curtain look at how he built and ran his administration, revealing normally hidden political machinations about board appointments, donations, gifts, access, the frequent need to say “no” to campaign donors who asked for favors after they had said “yes” to him.
He pointed out how careful he was with the $58 million in donations that came in during his 8 years as a state politician and the tens of millions of discretionary economic development money. How he carefully chose which private companies he publicly promoted to spur economic growth.
None of that money or public announcements went to Star Scientific, he testified.
Each question from his attorney brought another merit badge as McDonnell smoothly laid bare the essence of his administration.
Fastidiousness. Work Ethic. Loyalty, Calm assuredness. “Faith Tradition.” Public Service (38 years). Knowledge. Teamwork.
All delivered with perfect pitch, with that eye contact, like the serious vice-presidential candidate he once was.
“It’s a very key part of the defense strategy to do what I call the character contrast between him and Jonnie Williams,” Holsworth said. “basically going to put Bob McDonnell – the governor, the Boy Scout, the person who everyone is testifying to his integrity – against the person who, by his own admission, tried to engage in a criminal bargain with Virginia state government.”
Of course, we’ll see how McDonnell he does under cross-examination.
Thursday morning, the defense continues, with McDonnell testifying about his relationship with his wife. It’s not expected to be as vicious as previous testimony about Maureen McDonnell, who has been called a “screamer,” a “nutbag” and a clueless blonde whose mental stability was very much in question during her reign as FLOVA, the security team’s term for the First Lady of Virginia.
The defense strategy in part: if the flaky FLOVA did it, you must acquit.