by Paul Goldman
“Call the grave diggers. We may have buried a guy whose still alive” is my take on the latest polling numbers showing Virginians have not joined the mainstream media mob who have decided to hang Governor McDonnell BEFORE the trial, indeed before there is any hard evidence that he is going to be indicted by state or federal authorities. Despite 4 months of relentless, unprecedented “he’s a crook” front page coverage led by the Amazon.com Post, His Excellency, our “gifted governor” has polling numbers a lot better than a goodly number of other Governors even in more Republican states. As the saying goes: Who would have thunk it?
Just when Dexter, the character in the Dexter HBO series, had McDonnell wrapped up and on the execution table, the script changed, or at least the Director cried “STOP!”. To be sure, this could only be like the scene in the movie The Perfect Storm, when the doomed passengers on the boat get a few hours of reprieve as they sailed into the calm eye of the great hurricane. Eventually, the giant waves and fierce winds surrounding their unreal zone of safety will reappear, leaving them no place to hide.
BUT let’s assume the Virginia newspaper posse is wrong, let’s assume after all these months of front page leaks and the latest editorials calling on him to RESIGN are wrong: let’s assume that Jonnie The Rat Williams is NOT believed by the federal prosecutors, let’s assume the prosecutors decide that McDonnell is telling the truth, that he might be a lot of things a Governor shouldn’t be, but not “a crook” as Nixon would have put it.
As I have written in this space – a lonely voice I might add – the law requires our “gifted Governor” and his “gifted wife” be given the benefit of the doubt. The usual rule in the South is this: if it quacks like a duck, and walks like a duck, and looks like a duck, it’s got to be Duck Dynasty don’t it?
But let’s assume – and let’s insist really – that if the prosecutors aren’t absolutely sure they have “their man”, then as the saying goes: If the facts don’t quite fit, then the prosecutors have to acquit.
Okay: That’s not quite the quip, but it’s close enough for government work in this case.
The polls don’t lie: Right now, knowing what they know, the people of Virginia aren’t demanding McDonnell resign, stand trial for criminal charges, or do anything but finish out what they still see as a positive 4 years at the Governor’s Mansion.
“Hell with the newspaper editorial writers and muckrakers!” say the people of Virginia. They seem willing – except for diehard Democrats and your died-in-the-wool “plague on both your houses” independents – to give His Excellency a second chance if the federal grand jury disbands without putting the Governor’s name on any piece of official paper. They may wrong but this is the majority view.
You read about people suddenly coming alive on the operating table, even supposedly after being tagged at the morgue: but not any who apparently buried alive at the local political graveyard beneath six feet of solid news print.
Does this mean Virginians have a high tolerance for bad gubernatorial behavior, or a low tolerance for a political lynch mob?
Neither really. But it does tell me this: McDonnell has made a big political mistake in not (1) making a better public Mea Culpa, (2) making a better public case for his being dumb but not corrupt and (3) failing to call a Special Session showing he has learned from his mistake and will use that experience to make sure it can never happen again. Had he done all three things, his positive ratings would likely be a lot higher: and the prosecutors would face a lot harder decision.
That’s right: one thing the prosecutors have been considering for weeks now is whether there will be a public backlash to their calling McDonnell a “crook” in so many words, or in using his wife’s blind ambition to force the Governor into taking a plea and resigning.
It has been a public hanging by the media: and thus it will be a public spectacle whatever the prosecutors decide to do. Right now, as indicated, the court of public opinion isn’t in a hanging mode. Again, you or I might a different view. But that’s a separate issue.
The reason for the polling numbers seems plain enough: The public at large isn’t convinced what he is being accused of doing is so far different from the political norm to warrant criminal sanctions.
There is only one way to prove them wrong: he would have to be indicted, and then convicted by a jury of his peers. In that period, McDonnell would be forced to turn his Republican guns on the Democratic prosecutors, fair or not.
Based on the polling data, this scenario is possible: Most Republicans and a majority of independents might be convinced, in terms of the court of public opinion, that the DOJ of a Democratic Administration played a little politics with the claim of criminal conduct on the part of the GUV and possibly the First Lady.
The DOJ fear: Given the ethical rules once an indictment is issue, this could turn ugly as McDonnell’s lawyers start talking to the jury poll while the DOJ has to remain silent in relative comparison.
Why not therefore let the constitution of Virginia take its normal course, McDonnell will be gone in a few months anyway, why take the risk of a big public blow-up in the middle of a GUV race over what the people right now see as a personal failing, not a gubernatorial crime that has affected his performance in office?
But you say” “Paul, it is clear the public isn’t really informed, hasn’t been following the facts, when they learn the truth, the public will get outraged.”
My comeback: “I tend to give the public far more credit.”
Let’s cut to the chase: As I have written, I am not a big fan of what I will call this “Jonnie The Rat” case, where a sleazy business guy like Williams – based on what we know – gets to say “trust me prosecutors” on my ratting out the Governor for making secret illegal promises to me. It may be prosecutors have a lot stronger case, and one suspects they surely have good reason to think so sans Mr. Williams.
BUT: In the end, they don’t have a smoking gun is my guess. There was clearly more going around in the dark than Santa Claus when Mr. Williams was checking his gift list before dropping down the chimney of the Governor’s Mansion. Yet that being said: As I have written, Governors do favors for their friends and in our culture, friends tend to be $friends, like it or not, we need to be adults here.
I am not condoning it: but I refuse to be a hypocrite either just to nail a Republican Governor who I didn’t vote for [didn’t vote for him for AG either.]
Bottom line: Call me old fashioned, call me “a rebel, call me what you will” as the famous song goes, I would rather see 100 guilty men go free than convict one innocent man. And “innocent” in our culture, in our law, is someone who gets the benefit of a reasonable doubt.
That’s my take on the latest poll numbers: The court of public opinion is prepared to give their Governor a chance at redemption having now given his accusers all these months to make their case, legal, political, ethical and otherwise.
Should the prosecutors listen? Ideally no, but practically is another vital question. In my view, the better result in terms of what is good for the state would be to let the Governor off the hook IF he would agree to call a Special Session, fight for real ethics reform, and appoint a Governor’s Commission to study our laws to make sure we aren’t sending innocent people to jail or keeping them there due to things we need to change including a system which forces people to take pleas to things they didn’t do because fighting for the truth has become too costly or risky.
We call this “rough justice.” This is not a bad result at all when you are essentially dealing with a “political offense” in the main part. Real corruption over the years has always included actions by Governors that were far more serious and directly monied corrupt than what we have here.
This is not to condone it: but it is to say that if the price for “rough justice” for the many is to give Governor McDonnell the benefit of the doubt, then 20 years from now, the interests of the state will have been far better served and the outcome far better for the greater good.
I read the polls as saying this: If the prosecutors are willing to accept this kind of “rough justice”, the public is “down” with that, and in that regard, it presents an opportunity to address far more series criminal justice issues than could otherwise be addressed right now in our political culture.