The Good Guy Defense 

Bob McDonnell portrays himself as a heartbroken husband, who prayed for God to take away his wife’s anger.

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Scott Elmquist

Bob McDonnell couldn’t take it anymore, he testified. So on Labor Day in 2011 after a failed attempt to spend a pleasant weekend with his wife, Maureen, he wrote her a heartfelt note.

“You told me again yesterday that you would wreck my things and how bad I am,” he sent in an email. “It hurt me to my core.”

He wrote that he prayed that God would “take this anger” away from her.

“He has not yet answered those prayers,” he wrote. “Somehow, the best plans with us never work out. It makes me sad. I am lonely sometimes. I want to be in love, not just watch movies about it.”

McDonnell's defense team entered the letter into evidence Thursday during the federal corruption and fraud trial against the former governor and his wife.

In what surely is well-rehearsed testimony, the defense is using its star witness, Bob McDonnell, to paint the former governor as a good guy who simply was trapped in a marriage with an unstable, luxury-obsessed woman who often was mean to him and others.

The defense appears to be depicting McDonnell as a victim who tried to reconcile things with his wife but was rebuffed: Maureen McDonnell never responded to that 2011 email. And Bob McDonnell testified that in the course of preparing for the trial, he learned she instead had corresponded with Jonnie Williams, the wealthy businessman whose largess the McDonnells are accused of accepting in exchange for government favors.

Going by his testimony, McDonnell’s only sin is caring too much about public service and working long hours. As a result, he acknowledged that he neglected his wife, who didn’t adjust well to life in public office. But that’s as far as he took it in terms of accepting responsibility for the mess in which he and his wife find themselves.

Even though McDonnell’s defense relies almost entirely on humiliating Maureen -- not a particularly husbandly approach, as others have pointed out -- McDonnell was impressive in how he managed to pile on in the gentlest possible way, somehow managing not to come off like a complete jerk in the process.

McDonnell spoke about his marriage in the hushed, solemn voice usually reserved for sharing news of death of a loved one. But he was light on horrific details, obliquely describing Maureen as easy to anger. He left it to the jury to connect his comments to those of prior witnesses, one of whom went so far as to describe Maureen as a “nut bag.”

He described himself in reasonable, down-to-earth terms. He twice told the jury that he doesn’t yell at people. And during questioning about the $20,000 worth of dresses and designer clothing that Williams purchased Maureen, McDonnell fell back on his everyman-image with a quip about Jos A. Banks being his “designer.”

At times the testimony had the feel of a low-energy campaign stop. It would be taxing to count the number of times McDonnell invoked job creation while discussing his policy goals and time as governor, but his campaign slogan, “Bob’s for Jobs,” was repeated at least a dozen times.

McDonnell was led through his testimony with the friendly questioning of his lead defense lawyer, Henry Asbill, a tall man who looks a bit like one of those drinking-bird desk toys. Prosecutors will be rougher on cross-examination -- and far more skeptical. During his testimony they occasionally shook their heads. One passed a picture taken the day they were indicted -- before they had time to formulate their defense -- showing them holding hands and walking into the courtroom.


More by Ned Oliver

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