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It was the best of times, it was the worst of times for two noble public servants, Gov. Bob McDonnell and Gov. Chris Christie. Former Virginia governor Bob McDonnell was indicted and later found guilty on corruption charges, using the power of his office to promote business interests of a “friend” who showered the McDonnell family in $177,000 worth of gifts and loans. New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie was implicated in a scandal dubbed “bridge gate” when several leaked emails suggested his office conspired to create traffic on George Washington Bridge for political retaliation against Fort Lee Mayor Mark Sokolich who did not endorse Gov. Christie for re-election.

Both men quickly came forward to address those allegations and present the true guilty parties – crazy women. They gave the media the scapegoats, some sordid personal details, and the headlines wrote themselves. The politicians’ defense played on inherent sexism in our culture and gave us two stories: one of a nagging, crazy wife, and one of a woman scorned.

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Remember that episode where Leslie Knope takes responsibility for something she didn’t do to protect a friend?

gov. bob mcdonnell’s crazy wife defense

Gov. Bob McDonnell and his wife Maureen McDonnell were indicted on corruption charges. The prosecution accused the couple of conspiring to use the governor’s office in a quid pro quo deal with a wealthy businessman. The defense team argued that because McDonnells marriage was so troubled they were too estranged to work together on anything. Because Maureen was not a public official, alone, she could not be convicted on corruption charges.

Once the trial began, the defense engaged in a massive scale character assassination of Maureen McDonnell. The defense called up witnesses that painted Maureen as mentally ill, unstable, needy, immature, and manipulative.

The media took the bait. The papers delighted in reporting on Maureen McDonnell’s character flaws. Here are some headlines written about the former First Lady of Virginia:

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That last headline was changed from Aide: Staff worried former Virginia first lady might be mentally ill  Apparently even WaPo has a conscience.

The aggregated descriptions of Maureen McDonnell from the above articles:

  • Not balanced
  • Jerkyll and Hyde [suggestion of mental illness]
  • Unpredictable
  • Verbally Abusive
  • Demanding
  • Manipulative
  • Deceptive
  • Big spender. Wanted a designer dress.
  • “There are two sides to Maureen,” she testified. “You’re not sure which one you’re going to get — which one will show up.” [suggestion of mental illness]
  • A management consultant brought in to improve working conditions for employees advised them to act as though they were “dealing with a 5-year-old,” she testified. [emphasis mine]
  • “I think she was pathologically incapable of taking any kind of responsibility,” Kelly said.

From the description above, Maureen seems like a sitcom caricature of a wife from hell. The defense stopped short of accusing her of consorting with the devil. A lot of these keywords activate harmful stereotypes about women. They are so mercurial. One moment they love you, next thing you know you’re in the doghouse for God-knows-what. They are so manipulative, getting what they want using deception and feminine wiles. And what man has not been told tales of shallow, immature gold-diggers who will spend all of his hard-earned money on designer dresses.

Offensive stereotypes aside, the suggestion of mental illness is a huge concern here. There is a history of declaring women “hysterical” or crazy (see: gaslighting) in order to silence them and get them to behave. In this case mental illness is being used so a politician can evade responsibility. It makes a mockery of a very serious problem and contributes to the idea that people pretend to be crazy so they don’t have to face the consequences of their actions. In a country that has a particularly problematic relationship with mental health, these actions are just irresponsible.

Turns out misogyny doesn’t always pay out, the “crazy wife defense” has not been successful. McDonnell and his wife were found guilty on corruption charges. I’ll leave you with this quote from Petulia Dvorak:

After 24 hours on the witness stand and one of the biggest public displays of wife-shaming in memory, former Virginia governor Robert F. McDonnell (R) didn’t save himself. Or his wife. He had the chance last year to man up and spare his wife and family all this. Prosecutors offered him a single count of fraud that avoided all mention of corruption and any charges against his wife.

gov. chris christie’s bitches be crazy defense

The leaked email that started the “bridgegate” scandal read: “time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee.” The email was sent by deputy chief of staff Bridget Kelly after she learned that the Mayor of Fort Lee was not endorsing Christie for re-election. And if Chris Christie’s lawyers’ report is to be believed, Kelly and one other were the sole masterminds and perpetrators of the bridge lane closures. Chris Christie, the epitome of maligned virtue, came out calling Kelly “stupid,” and “deceitful.”

But why did Bridget Kelly orchestrate a massive traffic jam? What is the motive? BITCHES BE CRAZY, AMMIRITE? seems to be the answer from the official report that can be found here.

Kelly had become Deputy Chief of Staff,13 assuming the post left vacant by her predecessor, Stepien, who had departed in April 2013 to run the Governor’s re-election campaign. Because Stepien was her “benefactor,” Kelly relied heavily on him during this transition. And at some point after Stepien’s departure to run the campaign, Kelly and Stepien became personally involved, although, by early August 2013, their personal relationship had cooled, apparently at Stepien’s choice, and they largely stopped speaking.

It is unclear why details of Kelly’s sexual history are relevant to the report. The writers failed to include sexual histories of any other actors in this scandal. Note the liberal use of ironic quotation marks throughout the report. This passage, for example, suggests that Bridget Kelly got her position as deputy chief of staff because she’s a slutty slut thanks to her “benefactor.” Oh and also, bee-tee-dubs, she was dumped.

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The “Impartial” Report Exonerates Gov. Christie

Often when politicians want to discuss touchy subjects without being called bigots, they use code words. So when a politician says “urban,” the audience is meant to understand “black.” And when they say Bridget Kelly had a sexual relationship with her predecessor, the audience is meant to understand that she slept her way to the top. She cried frequently? Must be unstable. But what was her motive? She was dumped, hell hath no fury, etc. Women are so mysterious, who knows why they do the things they do, AMMIRITE?

The report has been slammed as sexist.  You can read the responses to the report in this article.

So why did Chris Christie’s lawyers decide that Bridget Kelly was the most suitable scapegoat? After all, she wasn’t the only one who was implicated in the email leaks. At least three other men were privy to the email exchanges. So why did Kelly become the face of this scandal?

The answer is simple. It is very easy to destroy a woman’s reputation. Facts are not needed, rumors and suggestions will do. There is no need to attack a woman’s professional decisions when her sexual and personal choices can be questioned. Paint a scarlet letter on her, and no one will listen to what the slut has to say. The McDonnells’ lawyers knew that, Gov. Christie’s lawyers knew that. They relied on misogyny when dispensing seemingly irrelevant details about the women involved.

I am not suggesting that all men are sexist dirtbags that blame women for everything. Indeed, Mrs. Maureen McDonnell was undoubtedly on board with her husband’s defense strategy. No matter how painful and eviscerating that defense was, it was a better alternative than jail. Rather, I see this as a cautionary tale about power. Power will use any tool available to stay in power. Sexism and misogyny permeating our culture are vulnerabilities that can be exploited by political hacks. So next time there is a mob yelling “burn the witch,” pause before grabbing the pitchfork. Always ask yourself, who is this benefiting?