Where have the big-time grifters gone?

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

Cor­rup­tion in the gov­er­nor’s man­sions just ain’t what it used to be. A crooked gov­er­nor of the old school, even an hon­ors grad­u­ate in the not-so-long ago, would never have set­tled for a pair of FootJoy golf shoes, a Rolex, an Os­car de la Renta dress for the mis­sus or air­line tick­ets to a bach­e­lorette party in Sa­van­nah and mid­night in the Gar­den of Good and Evil. With or with­out a Louis Vuit­ton suit­case.

Grifters to­day think small, and some of the greed­i­est crooks among us have nei­ther vi­sion, nor imag­i­na­tion. Bob McDon­nell and his wife, Mau­reen, took ad­van­tage of a will­ing mark and merely raided the Christ­mas cat­a­log. Rod R. Blago­je­vich, the for­mer gov­er­nor of Illi­nois, where they think big­ger than “aqua Fair­way Green Tech golf shirt,” was caught on au­dio­tape try­ing to sell Barack Obama’s Se­nate seat af­ter he left for Wash­ing­ton, where the new se­na­tor set out to give the Con­sti­tu­tion to the Good­will. Illi­nois boys think alike and think big. They’ve got the right stuff.

Mr. McDon­nell not so long ago could imag­ine him­self in Wash­ing­ton with real prospects. But he was clearly a small­town guy with small-bore am­bi­tions. All he wanted was stuff. Rich­mond seemed big­ger than that. Who knew?

Even in the Arkansas of long ago, when it was con­tent to be a quiet back­wa­ter of the magic huck­le­berry, and the wife of the man­ager of the J.C. Pen­ney could be the doyenne of high so­ci­ety, the gov­er­nor thought big­ger than a few shares in a patent-medicine em­pire, up and com­ing though it thought it­self to be.

One for­mer gov­er­nor of Arkansas, who gov­erned (so to speak) many years be­fore the in­no­cent Bubba was set loose on un­sus­pect­ing vir­gins, paid off a gen­er­ous cam­paign donor by en­abling him to sell the state a fire-and-theft insurance pol­icy on all the con­crete-and-steel bridges in the state high­way sys­tem. To be fair, if any­one had stolen the bridge across the Mis­sis­sippi River, the insurance com­pany would no doubt have paid off, and no one has yet set fire to so much as a con­crete cul­vert.

The Long dy­nasty in Louisiana, with a lit­tle help from Franklin D. Roo­sevelt, stole mil­lions, but the poor folks the politi­cians swin­dled got a car­ni­val mid­way for their money. The men Huey P. Long left in charge when he left for Wash­ing­ton, un­like Huey, only knew how to steal. This gave them lit­tle time to con­tinue Huey’s good works. Hun­dreds of Long fol­low­ers were im­pli­cated in chi­canery and skul­dug­gery, many were in­dicted, and seven of them, in­clud­ing the gov­er­nor and the pres­i­dent of LSU, went to prison. So many politi­cians par­took of the fed­eral largesse that FDR shipped into Louisiana they called it “the Sec­ond Louisiana Pur­chase.” They took lit­er­ally the slo­gan of the King­fish, “Share Our Wealth.”

The McDon­nells are more in the tra­di­tion of Imelda Mar­cos, the for­mer first lady of the Philip­pines, who with her hus­band, Fer­di­nand, took most of what was not nailed down in the Philip­pines, ac­cu­mu­lated among other things 4,000 pairs of shoes. (Many thought­ful women of my ac­quain­tance, out­raged by the rest of the Mar­cos profli­gacy, nev­er­the­less give her a pass on the shoes.)

The 43 pages of the in­dict­ments of the McDon­nells, ob­serves New Yorker mag­a­zine, sug­gest “the same feel­ing as when hear­ing about a par­tic­u­larly low-grade po­lit­i­cal sex scan­dal — the kind marked by petty des­per­a­tion and lack­ing in ro­mance.” But Vir­ginia, the land of more cava­liers than ac­tual cot­ton, is nei­ther Louisiana nor Arkansas, and cer­tainly not Illi­nois. Gen­til­ity is bred and hon­ored, par­tic­u­larly in the breach. The ex­pec­ta­tion of pro­bity — Vir­ginia is the land of Jef­fer­son, Madi­son, Mon­roe and Robert E. Lee — is so great that un­til now, it never oc­curred to the leg­is­la­ture to make laws against the kind of mis­con­duct the feds say the McDon­nells took to Rich­mond.

It’s on that lack of the law that the McDon­nells are now pin­ning their hopes of avoid­ing prison. Mau­reen McDon­nell, like Zsa Zsa Ga­bor when she was jailed on a traf­fic rap, can­not imag­ine her­self in a place where Os­car de la Renta does not de­sign the stripes. The pros­e­cu­tors must prove the gov­er­nor took the gifts and the money from Jon­nie Wil­liams, the man­u­fac­turer of diet pills, and gave him some­thing be­yond a smile and a wink in re­turn. Maybe Mr. Wil­liams was so en­rap­tured by his friend­ship with the dy­namic duo that all he wanted for his $165,000 in cash and gifts was their mag­i­cal pres­ence.

Maybe. But the grifters with their hon­est graft sound like a lot more fun. Wes­ley Pruden is ed­i­tor emer­i­tus of The Wash­ing­ton Times.

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