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McDonnell's medicine show

The former Virginia governor seems to have taken part in an old American tradition: selling snake oil.
Outgoing Virginia Governor McDonnell waves to guests as he arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of incoming governor McAuliffe in Richmond
Outgoing Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell waves to guests as he arrives for the swearing-in ceremony of incoming governor Terry McAuliffe in Richmond, Virginia, Jan. 11, 2014.

Throughout the late 19th century and well into the 20th, medicine shows toured the Midwest and the South, selling patent medicines like Kickapoo Sagwa, Dr. Morse’s Indian Root Pills, and  Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, in between popular entertainments like fire-eating and blackface yodeling. Sometimes a politician would get into the act. Dudley “Coozan Dud” LeBlanc (1894-1971), a Louisiana state senator who lost three gubernatorial bids, peddled a patent medicine called Hadacol. When asked what it was good for, LeBlanc replied, “It was good for five and a half million for me last year.”

When Bob McDonnell, campaigning in 2009 for Virginia governor, said he believed in “traditional values,” LeBlanc’s Hadacol Caravan probably wasn’t the tradition he had in mind. But the indictment of McDonnell and his wife, Maureen, for accepting gifts and money--apparently in return for promoting something called Anatabloc--situates them in LeBlanc’s subculture. Now McDonnell must choose between admitting he accepted bribes from Jonnie Williams—then the chief executive of Anatabloc’s manufacturer, Star Scientific -- or admitting he touted with absolute sincerity a patent medicine—we call them “dietary supplements” now—whose efficacy was unproven and whose exuberant marketing campaign last month drew a testy warning from the Food and Drug Administration.

Crook or sap? Or perhaps he accepted money illegally while also believing in the product.

Dietary supplements like Anatabloc are regulated lightly by the FDA on the presumption that they aren’t drugs but food—naturally-occurring vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other substances found in stuff people eat. (The patent medicines of old often blended in solvents, opiates, and other obviously dangerous substances.) Anatabloc, for instance, contains an alkaloid, anatabine, found in certain fruits and vegetables, including cauliflower and tomatoes. Unfortunately, anatabloc is also found in tobacco—indeed, that’s where Star Scientific found it—which, the FDA says, makes it potentially ineligible for the regulatory privileges that dietary supplements enjoy. 

Manufacturers are forbidden by law to market a dietary supplement as a treatment or preventive agent for a particular disease or condition. Such marketing is permitted only for FDA-approved drugs. Star Scientific drew the FDA’s ire by stating in press releases that Anatabloc might be an effective treatment for ulcerative colitis, neuro-inflammatory conditions, Alzheimer’s, traumatic brain injury, and multiple sclerosis--and by posting on its Web site consumer testimonials touting Anatabloc as a treatment for depression, sinusitis, and asthma. Star Scientific has said it plans to submit a new drug application with the FDA and undertake clinical trials for a drug it did not identify.

Did the loans and gifts Williams lavished on the McDonnells prompt them to climb aboard the Anatabloc Caravan? The chronology described in the indictment is compelling.

After Williams treated McDonnell to several free rides on his private jet, a McDonnell aide set up a meeting between Williams and Virginia’s Secretary of Health, whose help Williams wanted to arrange scientific studies to verify Anatabloc’s possible health benefits. McDonnell talked up Star Scientific at a Richmond meeting with health professionals; Williams posted photos of McDonnell at the event on company Facebook and Twitter pages.

About $70,000 after that, Bob pestered his secretary of health about Star Scientific, and Maureen talked up Anatabloc at a Florida investors meeting.

About $15,000 after that, Bob pestered his secretary of health about Star Scientific again.

About $12,000 after that (including a Rolex for Bob and assorted golf outings for the family), Maureen hosted a lunch at the governor’s mansion announcing two research grants to state universities in Virginia to examine Anatabloc’s possible health benefits. Bob discussed Anatabloc at the lunch. Maureen also appeared at a Richmond luncheon and a Michigan dinner, both for health care professionals, to promote Anatabloc.

Around this time, a research scientist who consulted for Star Scientific e-mailed Maureen to propose using Virginia government employees as guinea pigs for a study of Anatabloc’s effects on autoimmune and chronic inflammatory conditions. Maureen wrote back to say she’d mentioned it to Bob and that he would talk to some folks about it.  

About $50,000 after that, Bob pulled some Anatabloc out of his pocket while meeting with a state official about Virginia’s health care costs, said he took the stuff himself, and asked the official to get in touch with the “Anatabloc people.”

About $20,000 after that, Maureen tucked Anatabloc into goodie bags distributed to spouses at a meeting of the National Governors Association. Williams then flew the McDonnells up to a Cape Cod resort, and paid for various home repairs for the McDonnells, some of it performed by his brother.

Money, then a favor, then more money, then more favors, and so on.  For his part, McDonnell says it’s an unacceptably “radical idea” that “facilitating an introduction or meeting, appearing at a reception or expressing support for a Virginia business is a serious federal crime if it involves a political donor or someone who gave a gift.” His characterization fails to capture the contrapuntal harmonies described above. But McDonnell insisted he and his wife had been "falsely and wrongly accused": "We did not violate the law." 

There’s evidence to support the sap paradigm, too. The indictment has Maureen repeatedly buying shares in Star Scientific (and, it alleges, assiduously working to avoid reporting these purchases on state-mandated disclosure forms). The indictment even says Maureen enthusiastically forwarded to Bob an email stating that Anatabloc is going to save so many lives that it might cause problems for government policymakers. Such behavior looks like the actions of a true believer. But it may also be the actions of someone who believed that all the publicity she and her husband were generating for Anatabloc would raise Star Scientific’s stock price.

Alternatively, it may be evidence of the venerable maxim that all great con artists eventually come to believe their own con. McDonnell did say that he took the Anatabloc pills himself. 

Does Anatabloc cure anything? Nobody knows. A crowning irony would be if, long after the McDonnells’ reputations are destroyed, medical science established that the stuff had medical value. Patent medicines are occasionally discovered, through medical trials, to possess the traits once touted by the rascals who hawked them. Bob and Maureen, take heart: according to a recent National Public Radio report, the most famous patent medicine in history—Snake Oil—really worked as an anti-inflammatory, at least as originally used by Chinese railroad workers. So maybe there’s hope for Anatabloc, even if there isn’t much hope for you.