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Editor's letter: Ostentatious politicians

The McDonnells’ indictment for corruption speaks volumes about the company elected officials now keep.

We’ve come a long way, it seems, from Pat Nixon’s “Republican cloth coat.” Vice presidential candidate Richard Nixon’s mawkish reference to his wife’s humble apparel in his Checkers speech helped salvage his political career in 1952, when it was about to implode over charges that he’d accepted special donations from campaign supporters. Former Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and First Lady Maureen McDonnell are now fighting similar allegations of their own, and if details in the indictment are true, claims of modesty and humility will not be part of their defense (see Talking points). Prosecutors contend they hit up millionaire businessman Jonnie Williams for thousands of dollars’ worth of finery from Oscar de la Renta and Louis Vuitton, along with a Rolex watch, so that they could shine alongside the wealthy donors and favor-seekers streaming through the governor’s mansion.

The McDonnells’ indictment speaks volumes about the company elected officials now keep. But aside from the scale of the rewards, American politicians are no greedier than they ever were; it just used to be a lot easier to get away with being on the take. Graft was an almost expected way of doing business for the political machines of Chicago, New York City, and other big cities and states. Today, in the “gotcha’’ game played by both parties, any transgression tends to come to light, and prosecutors who scent corruption can easily obtain damning electronic evidence. Just ask former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, now serving a 14-year sentence for corruption, or former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, who’s doing 28 years for fraud and racketeering. As Nixon knew and the McDonnells may soon find out, it’s dangerous for venal politicians to be too ostentatious.

James Graff

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