Southern Gothic

Icarus and DedalusThe sweat rolling down the backs of some Republican politicos owes nothing to the summer heat. It comes from a fear of what will happen to Bob McDonnell.

Will more stories about undeclared gifts and unseemly behavior make their way to the ear of Washington Post reporter Roz Helderman? Will any of this blow back on the candidacy of Ken Cuccinelli?

These concerns are muted, for now. But they are out there. Festering.

And the one person who stands to benefit from it all? Bill Bolling. Don’t call him “Governor” just yet, but don’t rule out the possibility that before the year is out, Mr. Bolling could finally, if only briefly, have the job he has always wanted.

If that comes to pass, it will represent the GOP’s doomsday scenario. A Gov. Bolling means that more and more tawdry stories have come out regarding McDonnell. The likely sources? Either the legal defense team of former Governor’s Mansion chef Todd Schneider (whose trial for pilfering supplies from the Mansion’s larder begins in July) or federal investigators looking into McDonnell’s Star Scientific ties. Or worse, the stories could be coming from inside the McDonnell perimeter. Regardless of the source(s), McDonnell’s governorship cannot take many more such revelations. The Rolex story hit very hard. Another such tale and it’s all over. McDonnell folds his tent and resigns. Hello Gov. Bolling.

And with Bill in charge, Ken Cuccinelli’s life suddenly becomes even more complicated. Cuccinelli was able to out-hustle and out-muscle Bolling both for control of the Republican Party and the gubernatorial nomination. A Gov. Bolling, though, could turn his new bully pulpit into an inquisitor’s rack.

The good copy would write itself.

The Cuccinelli campaign may believe it has things in hand. McDonnell’s problems are of his own making and he will have to answer for them. And remember, it was Ken Cuccinelli who launched the investigations into McDonnell in the first place.

All true. And all irrelevant. Richmond is unused to such scandals. Yes, the local city council and school board are populated by laughingstocks and each body has seen its share of members either go down in flames or find themselves behind bars. But that’s local color. Outsiders engaged in rotten behavior in Capitol Square? Those are unforgivable offenses against propriety. Worse, they reach the level of embarrassment. Governors and legislators are house guests. They are expected to conduct themselves accordingly. We can turn our eyes away from hijinks and even get a chuckle out of a few missteps. But do anything that makes your host look bad and you will find yourself on the curb with your luggage. And your friends? Take them with you on your way out of town, too.

Except Bill Bolling, the unassuming guy from just over the line in Hanover County. He’s clean. He gets the pass, the attention and perhaps the last word.

McAuliffe rumThe only saving grace in all of this? Terry McAuliffe. His past is riddled with scandals big and small. His fingerprints can be found on the corpses of political careers — Tony Coehlo and Jim Wright among them. His business dealings are littered with failed companies, lost jobs — yet handsome profits for himself, his wife and his father-in-law. And yes, people with whom he’s had dealings have gone to jail. But not Terry. He’s always managed to be one step ahead of the prosecutor.

In Terry McAuliffe, then, the GOP has a Democratic opponent who offers them both an ideal campaign foil and a shield for the misdeeds of its own.

But they cannot depend on it. If McDonnell is driven from office, there is no other political story in Virginia. Scandal becomes the theme right through election day. It will make the 2006 feeding frenzy over George Allen’s ill-considered remarks look restrained, even polite.

There is an alternative to this Southern Gothic narrative.

If Jeff Schapiro’s most recent column is an accurate read on the Conventional Wisdom, the current story is of McDonnell’s precipitous fall. For some it is lamentable. For others it’s amusing. But he has not crashed. And because he hasn’t, doomsday may not come after all:

Early in this controversy, McDonnell invoked the personal-friend exemption, describing Jonnie Williams as a family pal of some five years and insisting he’d made the necessary disclosures. It was a gamble that paid off with grief. For three months, newspapers have heaped embarrassment on the McDonnells. In the months ahead, a state trial court and a federal grand jury could heap more.

Meantime, McDonnell is becoming skilled at ducking questions. He depicts his family as under siege. He concedes disclosure laws might be tightened by the General Assembly next year, though it won’t apply to him because he leaves office in January.

But he still goes about being governor.

Call it what you will — run out the clock, rope-a-dope, or grim determination — McDonnell keeps doing the small stuff, stays as much out-of-the-way as possible and ultimately frustrates the vultures circling his career. He leaves office on a low note. But he leaves intact and on schedule.

Perhaps to ensure he does, McDonnell should give the survivor of a far more lurid Southern Gothic story a call: Mark Sanford. Sanford survived much worse — a bizarre public meltdown, ugly divorce and an impeachment proceeding — but also saw a protegé elected governor and this spring found himself back in elected office.

If he needs it, I’ll give the Governor Rep. Sanford’s email address so they can get the conversation started.