PRUDEN: Where have the big-time grifters gone?

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 small-town 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, 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 home of Washington, 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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