What's a Political Scandal Among Friends?

Margaret Carlson was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Earlier today Bloomberg View columnists Margaret Carlson and Ramesh Ponnuru met online to chat about the scandals facing former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell and Texas gubernatorial candidate Wendy Davis. Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Ramesh: I have never understood the appeal, Margaret, of extremely expensive watches. One other thing I don't understand about the Bob McDonnell scandal: Couldn't Maureen McDonnell have waited until the governorship was over to buy her husband one? He could have taken any number of instantly lucrative jobs after leaving office. Now he may end up doing time instead of keeping it.

Margaret: Power isn't its own reward and may increase the appetite for things. It's a vice most politicians tamp down, but wow, did the McDonnells go wild. I picture Maureen racing through Bergdorf Goodman and Louis Vuitton, grabbing designer things like a contestant on that old show where you got to keep everything you could throw into a shopping cart. The dishonesty of the McDonnells first came out when investigators talked to the governor's chef about his "taking" food from the kitchen. Investigators learned that the chef was catering private events for the McDonnells -- which had to be paid for personally -- in return for being able to put his hands on a side of beef from the mansion's kitchen to be used for his other clients. That was the tip of the iceberg lettuce that got us to the Oscar de la Renta dresses. I don't buy McDonnell's defense that he didn't do anything for dietary supplement maker Johnnie Williams. McDonnell did plenty, including getting Williams in the door to meet with regulators -- regulators who didn't buy his snake oil. Score one for bureaucrats.

Ramesh: Yes, McDonnell's lawyers have a sentence in which they argue that the things he did for the company didn't amount to much -- but the list makes the sentence 111 words long. It's sort of self-refuting. Speaking of unbelievable defenses, did you catch Wendy Davis's explanation of her repeated fibbing about her record? She could have said that none of the details really change the basic outline of her story -- and most of her critics concede that her rise from hard circumstances was impressive. Instead, she had to accuse her Republican opponent, Greg Abbott, of a dirty trick in allegedly getting the news media to finally call her on her distortions. And in the course of her attack, she suggested that Abbott, a paraplegic, "hasn't walked a day" in her shoes. Davis has raised a lot of money: Maybe the donors should ask for it back?

Margaret: So many people make the careless mistake of using a cliche like "walk in my shoes" about someone who can't, so I can't fault her for that. I suspect Abbott's office (see the at-the-ready snide reaction of his spokesman to the story) and an ex-husband were behind the quibbling about details. How is it a distortion to be divorced at 21 instead of 19, or how long she lived in a trailer? If I lived there, a few months would seem like a year. As you said, it doesn't change the outline of her story.

Ramesh: That's the thing about political scandals: So many of them are pointless in just this way. The McDonnells could have waited to cash in. Davis could have stuck to the truth (while certainly skipping over the part of the story where she left her husband right after he paid off her student loans). But they couldn't resist grasping for a little more. On this freezing-cold day in Washington, I'm thinking back to all the praise Davis got for her stamina in filibustering a bill to protect unborn children after 20 weeks. Today is the March for Life, and a lot of people are on Pennsylvania Avenue to speak for the voiceless in less comfort than Davis. Maybe ABC, which devoted lavish attention to Davis's footwear at the time, should interview one of the marchers about their shoes.

Margaret: I'm closer to you than I am to most Democrats on abortion: There should be none conducted after viability, as Roe v. Wade directs, and we should put together a blue-ribbon medical panel to decide when viability occurs given the astounding advances in neonatal care. That moment has changed since 1973, when Roe put viability at the third trimester. Then reasonable people might be able to come closer together. Politicians don't want that -- do you?

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the authors on this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net
Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net