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January 23, 2014

Big Lessons of Governorships

Harry M. Covert

Whatever the facts prove to be, federal corruption charges leveled against Virginia's 71st governor are nothing short of astonishing. No such thing has ever occurred in the state known as the "Mother of Presidents."


Robert McDonnell turned chief executive duties over last week. On Tuesday, a federal grand jury indicted both he and his wife on 14 charges of taking money, gifts, mail fraud and other assorted things from a businessman over the course of his four-year term.


When the story broke some time ago, most Virginians, the ins and outs, and political watchers expressed shock and dismay.


Dr. Larry Sabato, the political guru at the University of Virginia, shook his head, noting on a newscast, "that's not the Virginia way."


First, there was a fight with the governor's chef charged with food thefts, then $15,000 to pay for his daughter's wedding, then shopping trips on a businessman's plane and financial loans for other things.


Mr. McDonnell repaid all of the gifts and noted previous governors had also received such items because the state law allowed it. No past governors have come to his aid – as far as is known.


When something seems too good to be true, it usually is, wags often say. Damage from these missteps is incredible. A promising career perhaps for future national office faded like melting snow. The Republican candidate for governor couldn't use endorsement or campaign stops and the Old Dominion has quickly moved from staunch conservative positions to Democratic leadership.


The McDonnells are scheduled to be arraigned in federal court tomorrow. It will be a costly time for their defense. Incredibly the feds waited until Democrat Terry McAuliffe became the 72nd governor before charging the former First Family. State funds won't be used to help defend them now. In fact, while he was sitting, lots of state money was paid to a former attorney general for defense legal services.


From a journalistic stance, such conduct, arrest and trial gives lots of time for stories in the media in Virginia and now all over the country. Commentators are already saying 30-year prison terms are possible.


There will be ongoing news frenzy. That's the correct thing. But, more facts will come out, whether helpful or not. Mr. McDonnell has been credited with good leadership and solid administrative work. Unfortunately, all is ruined now.


Virginia provided eight presidents of the United States. The 66th governor was Lawrence Douglas Wilder, a state senator, lieutenant governor and the first African American to be elected governor.


The first governor I ever met was Albertis S. Harrison, who was No. 59. He looked like a chief executive, could pass for an Episcopal bishop and served as a Justice of the Supreme Court of Virginia from 1968 to 1981.


Mills E. Godwin, Jr., of Chuckatuck, VA, was the 60th and 62nd governor, first as a Democrat, second as a Republican. He was the last chief executive as part of the fabled Byrd Machine and later departed from the "pay as you go" philosophy established by the Berryville/Winchester Byrd family.


Others who distinguished themselves were A. Linwood Holton, the 61st and first GOP winner in 80 years, and John N. Dalton. The latter was No. 63 and a respected politician.


Mr. McDonnell could have followed the above named Virginians as distinguished leaders. That chance has now become slim and none. Like others, I want to see all of the facts. I'm not surprised the charges were filed after McDonnell left office. This will be a long and drawn-out process.


Maryland governors have held good records but one ended up as a disgraced resigned vice president, another was exonerated after he had served some federal prison time.


I don't want to think any of these charges are politically motivated.


This is a good reminder that if anything is true, those in lofty office must live to higher standards, avoid any appearance of evil and realize that "old sins cast long shadows."


Maybe it's a good thing Virginia governors can't have consecutive four-year terms.



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