A Virginia star crashes

Published 10:00 pm Tuesday, July 30, 2013

It wasn’t all that long ago that Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell was a rising star in the Republican Party, being seriously considered as a vice-presidential running mate for Mitt Romney in Romney’s campaign for president of the United States.

Even after he was ultimately passed over in favor of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, McDonnell was still a darling of the Republican Party, in large part because of the widespread esteem in which he was held by Virginians of all political stripes. National Republicans took advantage of that goodwill by bringing him aboard as an official surrogate for Romney during the long campaign.

When America voted to renew President Barack Obama for four more years in office, Virginia’s governor returned to his work in Richmond, where he used his star power to push through the General Assembly Virginia’s biggest transportation overhaul in a generation, a legislative feat the governor had every reason to believe would become the legacy of his service to Virginia.

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But stars have a way of burning out and falling from their great heights, and falling stars tend to be remembered less for the blaze of glory than for the destruction they cause if they crash to the Earth.

So it could be with Gov. McDonnell’s legacy as a result of his too-cozy relationship with Star Scientific chief executive Jonnie Williams, a political donor to the McDonnell gubernatorial campaign. Williams’ lavish personal gifts to the governor and his family do not necessarily suggest Williams sought some sort of quid pro quo regarding state and federal tax and securities investigations, but reasonable people could easily conclude that something smells rotten, nonetheless.

A $15,000 contribution to the wedding expenses of one of McDonnell’s daughters. A $6,500 Rolex watch. Vacations at Smith Mountain Lake. Loans worth $124,000 to McDonnell’s wife and to a real estate company the governor co-owns with his sister.

These are not the kinds of accommodations most folks can imagine from even their closest friends, and the average Virginian can hardly help but wonder at the invisible strings that might come with such generosity. Indeed, many people would be tempted to turn down such largesse for fear of the indebtedness it might imply.

Only in the months since the relationship and its benefits became public has the governor exhibited any semblance of rectitude concerning Williams’ gifts, culminating finally on Tuesday with his announcement that he will return “all remaining gifts” he and his family have received from Williams. Last week, he apologized for breaching his “sacred trust” with the people of the commonwealth.

It’s hard to imagine how a man as politically astute as McDonnell could have thought it appropriate to accept such benevolence while a resident of the governor’s mansion, no matter how lax Virginia’s ethics laws might be. The governor is smart enough to know that just because one can do something, that doesn’t necessarily mean one should do it.

In the end, Virginians can hope that McDonnell’s true legacy will not be an overhaul of the commonwealth’s transportation-funding mechanisms but an overhaul of the ethics laws that lead public servants to think of themselves and their actions as being above reproach.