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McDonnell marriage is par for the course in politics

For women married to male politicians, the rigors of political marriage are compounded by those of first ladyhood.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell pauses while making a statement as his wife, Maureen, right, listens during a news conference in Richmond, Va., Jan. 21, 2014.
Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell pauses while making a statement as his wife, Maureen, right, listens during a news conference in Richmond, Va., Jan. 21, 2014.

GEORGE: Martha, I gave you the prize years ago … There isn’t an abomination award going that you …MARTHA: I swear … if you existed I’d divorce you.-Edward Albee, "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" (1962)

Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell’s defense, in his current bribery trial, is that he’s in a bad marriage—or was, at least, when his wife Maureen took the lead in soliciting gifts and loans from a dietary-supplement tycoon named Jonnie Williams allegedly totaling $177,000. If the couple was estranged, the theory goes, they couldn’t have conspired to accept this largesse in exchange for governmental favors.  “We don’t communicate much,” he told the court on Aug. 21.

But what’s the difference between a good marriage and a bad one? To any outsider—and even, quite often, to the principals—it’s very difficult to tell. The happiest marriage on any given day can start to resemble "Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?", while the unhappiest can seem like “The Owl and the Pussycat.” Bob read in court an email he wrote Maureen in September 2011 that registered both extremes. “I love you,” it said. “You are my soulmate. I love being married to you.” But it also alluded to “the fiery anger and hate from you” and to a threat on Maureen’s part to “wreck my things …. I am so spiritually and mentally exhausted from being yelled at.”

The McDonnell trial has established that Maureen McDonnell was, as first lady of Virginia, a bad boss. “Intolerable,” testified her chief of staff. “It was yelling, accusations. Nothing was ever right.” The trial has also established that Maureen demonstrated impressively bad judgment about the family’s troubled finances. (Getting Williams to buy Bob a Rolex watch was no way to get out of debt.) But was Maureen a bad wife? Or Bob a bad husband? Or were they distinctly bad together? Not that I can tell. They fought; each felt ill-used; there were spells of silent anger. That happens in good marriages as well as bad.

Rather than characterize someone else’s marriage as good or bad, happy or unhappy, perhaps it’s best simply to apply the yardstick of difficulty. The McDonnells clearly had a difficult marriage when Bob was governor, and their legal troubles can’t have made it any easier since Bob left office in January. But difficult marriages are routine in politics, for entirely predictable reasons. A politician must excel at cultivating relationships with large numbers of people, which often calls for the sort of narcissistic personality that struggles with the quieter dynamics of marital or family intimacy. He (or she) must work inhumanly long hours and travel frequently, leaving family to fend for themselves. He (or she) is often exposed to the kind of adulation from idealists and careerists that can warp his or her sense of importance outside the political sphere.

A quarter-century ago I married my late wife, the journalist Marjorie Williams, at the Women’s National Democratic Club in Washington, D.C. In preparing for the ceremony we couldn’t help noticing that the walls were festooned with photographs of people who’d endured some of the most difficult marriages in American history. Look here and you spotted Eleanor Roosevelt. Look there and you saw Jackie Kennedy. Both women’s husbands were famously—in Kennedy’s case, compulsively—unfaithful, and they knew it. The lounge had a large photographic portrait of Sam Rayburn, whose marriage was so brief and so painful that few people knew it had ever occurred.

For women married to male politicians, the rigors of political marriage are compounded by those of first ladyhood. The role is outrageously retrograde, and likely seems so even to a former Redskins cheerleader like Maureen. (We know, at any rate, that she didn’t enjoy performing it.) The political wife, Marjorie wrote back in 2000, served to “warrant the husband’s basic normality as a family man,” to “assert his reliability, or morality,” and vouch for the husband’s "essential niceness" — all functions that other American wives gave up half a century ago with their poodle skirts. Small wonder so many political wives, trapped in this time warp, have struggled with depression (Barbara Bush) or gotten hooked on liquor, pills (Betty Ford, Kitty Dukakis), or Bergdof’s (Maureen).

“The traditional political wife,” Marjorie wrote, “is an endangered species… Some time, in the not too distant future, we will acknowledge the passing of her role with the same amazement we felt at the fall of the Berlin Wall, crashing down so easily after standing for decades as an unbreachable certainty. Boy, we'll think; that sucker wasn't as strong as it looked.” Her timing was overly optimistic, but I still think Marjorie will be proven right.

The McDonnells’ marriage was difficult, but not in ways recognizably different from other political marriages. To whatever extent Bob McDonnell believes they were different, that likely reflects the typical politician’s susceptibility to believing his life to be more unique than it really is. His testimony seems neither to make it more plausible nor less so that he could have collaborated with his wife in a bribery scheme. All it really showed was that he is married.