What are we to make of the conviction of former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell, an erstwhile presidential aspirant, and his wife Maureen on a bevy of federal corruption charges? The case held plenty of entertainment value for the schadenfreude-prone among us, but was there any broader meaning in it? It’s tempting, after all, to dismiss it as a sui generis story, given the uniqueness of the McDonnells’ predicament (dallying with a vitamin-supplement promoter?) and Virginia’s absurdly lax landscape (the state has virtually no limits on gifts to elected officials.)
But I would argue that there is a larger lesson to be taken from this tale. The McDonnell saga is, to me, just the most glaring recent example of a tendency in American politics and government that has bothered me for some time: our weird, unhealthy inflation of executive elected office at all levels of government. As the McDonnell revelations unspooled, first in the dogged reporting of the Washington Post’s Roz Helderman and Laura Vozzella and then in the trial itself, it became clear that driving much of the McDonnells’ behavior was their extremely exalted conception of the office of governor.
This conception not only contributed to the McDonnells’ extraordinary sense of entitlement but also fed the pressures that led them to accept the favors of the vitamin-supplement salesman, Jonnie R. Williams Sr. For one thing, Maureen McDonnell felt great anxiety about being sufficiently well turned out for her husband’s 2010 inauguration and, generally, about living up to the expectations for being the First Lady. Think about that for a second: in the 21st century, a woman needed to worry about performing a role called “First Lady” because her husband was the elected head of one of the nation’s 50 state governments. Does this happen elsewhere? Does the wife of the head of Germany’s state of Lower Saxony (whose population is roughly the same as Virginia’s) fret about living up to the role of “Erste Frau?” Is the wife of the premier of British Columbia or Saskatchewan worrying about whether her wardrobe will measure up?
Sure, one could write some of these anxieties off to Maureen McDonnell’s personal insecurities—but not entirely. After all, her husband was taking on a role in which it was deemed appropriate, by traditional protocol, for him to be referred to as “His Excellency.” (Virginia is hardly alone in this—Connecticut, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina and West Virginia all use this royalist language, a holdover from colonial times.)
The title was hardly the only trapping of office that could’ve led the McDonnells to believe they were monarchs of a sort. They lived in an official mansion, after all, with an executive chef (who, it turned out, was the man who got the scandal rolling when he reported the McDonnells for Williams’ $10,000 check to pay for McDonnell’s daughter’s wedding catering.) The chef, Todd Schneider, recently noted to The Post that he would “often get texts from the first lady about the mansion’s food late at night, sometimes after midnight.” Yes, the wife of the democratically elected governor of one of our 50 states was sending notes to the taxpayer-paid chef at her taxpayer-paid mansion to express her menu preferences. Since when did we become “Downton Abbey”?
This inflation was especially extreme in Virginia, which has an especially grandiose notion of its state government—Thomas Jefferson, Patrick Henry, “the Virginia way,” and all that. But you see the puffery of executive office all around the country, in members of both parties. You see it in Texas governor Rick Perry traveling the country with a veritable platoon of state police troopers at his side. You saw it in the reports of Maryland's attorney general, Democrat Doug Gansler, who got a kick out of having his official state-police driver turn on the siren and drive on the shoulder while on routine business. You see it in virtually every utterance and step taken by New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who bestrides his state like some latter-day King George III (except when he’s being flown by helicopter to his son’s baseball game and then driven by car for the remaining few hundred feet from copter to bleachers.) And you see it at the federal level—not just in all the pomp that has come to surround the presidency (that’s a whole story in its own right) but in the puffery that attends even anonymous Cabinet secretaries. I remember once seeing Ray LaHood, the amiable and utterly anodyne head of the Department of Transportation, being swept into a convoy of tinted-window SUVs, with earpiece-adorned guards, as he was leaving Capitol Hill after testifying on bike paths at a minor committee hearing. Heck, even the acting head of the White Office of Drug Control Policy—a man who, truly, not 10 people in this country could pick out of a lineup—has a security detail.
How did this happen? How did a country that was founded in rebellion against royal overlords become so prone to its own sort of executive self-importance? Part of it has to do with the problem that my editor Frank Foer laid out in an essay in the current issue of this magazine, on the ways in which our federalist system and delegation of powers to countless fragmented municipalities has created thousands of little princes with their own fiefdoms and aggrandizing tendencies. But it may go even deeper than that, to some ancient feudal habits deep within us that allow and even encourage our elected leaders to think they’re lords of their domain. Regardless, it’s time it stopped. No more “His Excellency” for men who, more often than not, are anything but excellent.