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McDonnell: A Razor-Sharp but Selective Memory

By Michael Leahy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 11, 2009

The tour around Alexandria was Bob McDonnell's idea, part of his campaign's effort to at once prove his poise and demonstrate his ties to Northern Virginia -- an attempt to show locals that he is one of them. He looked quite serene that early September day for a candidate who had been operating in crisis mode for more than a week.

What most worried the McDonnell campaign was that his graduate school thesis -- a 20-year-old paper that had criticized working mothers and gay people and urged the promotion of traditional values through government -- would become a proxy for an array of voters' unexpressed questions, starting with: What were his real thoughts now, and how might they affect Virginians' lives if he were elected governor?

Looking for a respite from the questions trailing him after details of the thesis were published, McDonnell took a couple of aides and a reporter on a ride around his boyhood stamping grounds. His emotional bond with Alexandria remains as deep as ever, he said, although he moved away long ago.

As his vehicle cruised down streets, he pointed at buildings, shops and schools that evoked memories for him, both happy and painful. "I heard about President Kennedy being assassinated when I was there," he said, gesturing at his old Catholic elementary school.

He stopped at his Catholic high school, Bishop Ireton. The sight of an athletic field there launched him into a flood of reminiscences about his football days. McDonnell, an undersize 147-pound wide receiver and defensive back, saved his best game for late during that final season, in 1971. Ireton found itself being shut out against local powerhouse T.C. Williams when McDonnell caught a pass over the middle of the field -- "The play was 99 Post," he recalled -- and streaked for a long touchdown. Moments later, he scored on a two-point conversion, taking such a hard hit that he vomited on the sidelines.

"The best game of my life," he said, able to recall how many receiving yards he had and how many catches he made during his senior year, noting that the latter broke an Ireton record. Aides marvel at his uncanny ability to summon old details -- athletic statistics, academic records, obscure quotations from political theorists, friends' golf handicaps. He revels in programmatic and personal specifics, leaning toward a crisp precision in his speech that befits his own and his father's military backgrounds. While others might say he stands about 5-9 or 5-10, McDonnell tells anyone who is interested that he is 5-9 3/4.

The vehicle stopped at a corner. He saw something, smiled and shook his head as if enjoying a private reverie before a font of memories poured out. It was during a summer in this town that a friend invited him to a party, where McDonnell met his future wife, Maureen. He pointed at a large Alexandria apartment complex and said, "That was ours," meaning that he and Maureen had lived there when they got married, right after he graduated from the University of Notre Dame.

Every now and then, he segued into the message he wanted to send on the tour: This place molded him; his values were instilled here; his roots are deep.

But, in his 20s, McDonnell left Alexandria. When he and Maureen came back to Virginia after a tour in the Army and a four-year stint as a manager of a Fortune 500 hospital supply company, they chose Virginia Beach. They made their home close to a university founded by Pat Robertson and the Christian Broadcasting Network, where soon, at 30, he would enter graduate school and later law school.

It was the pivotal move of his life. It placed him at the center of a politically shifting community increasingly hospitable to socially conservative Republicans. "I knew Bob had an interest in politics, and I knew he would be the kind of candidate people down here appreciate. Things were changing here," remembered state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, a Republican and McDonnell's first major political friend in his new city.

In Virginia Beach, McDonnell, who said he arrived there with no political ambitions, had found an ideal breeding ground for a future candidacy.

In Thesis, 'Bob Is Right'

His new school, which would soon change its name to Regent University, suited him well, too. "I liked the fact that there was a focus on civility and ethics, and I liked the Christian environment," McDonnell recalled. "I thought, here's a chance to . . . learn in an environment where people were talking about the importance of the foundations of our country, and about history, but also learn some things about the importance of the integration of faith and academics."

David Klarich, a Regent student who was in his early 20s at the time, looked up to the 30-something man with a family. "He was very principled, very committed to Christ, very thoughtful about public policy, and you knew he had a future in politics," Klarich remembered. "I think people expected a lot from him. That wasn't unusual at Regent. In fact, that was what was expected of all of us, I think. We were trained with the intention not to stay put after we graduated but to get out there and practice where we were called to be."

School officials regularly spoke of preparing graduates for positions of leadership in the public sector. Klarich would become the first Regent Law graduate elected to public office, winning a Missouri state House race at 25.

A year later, when McDonnell entered politics by running for the House of Delegates, his constitutional law professor, Herbert W. Titus, proudly attended his candidacy announcement. "I felt he had a chance to be very successful," Titus remembered. "Bob was part of the Republican resurgence at the time. . . . This was the kind of thing we hoped our good students would do, try to apply what they had learned."

The founding dean of Regent Law School, Titus had served as chairman of a three-member faculty committee that supervised McDonnell's thesis, the professor and McDonnell discussing the development of the paper in meetings during which Titus offered gentle guidance. He listened to McDonnell's goals for the paper, which argued that social changes, federal welfare policy and Supreme Court decisions had undermined family values. Titus made broad suggestions and critiqued McDonnell's work.

"It was more general suggestions, because I think Bob had a fairly good idea what he wanted to do," Titus remembered. "The [thesis] is presented now [by critics] as a radical position; but it's hardly radical. The ideas expressed by Bob in the thesis were quite compatible with the idea of family as God created it and its importance to the economic life of the nation -- the idea that you can't be a fiscal conservative if you're not a social conservative. Bob is right."

Today, Titus has avuncular praise for McDonnell. "Bob was a family man, very congenial, someone you liked," he said. "His commitment to family [issues] was obvious. This was the kind of person you wanted to see get involved, someone who wanted to apply the principles and approach learned here."

Titus defined that approach in his classes: Students would be learning a different perspective than that taught at most universities. Titus said he taught the "Blackstonian view," a series of legal concepts derived from the writings of 18th-century English legal scholar William Blackstone that he said dramatically influenced the Framers. At the heart of the Blackstonian philosophy was that man's law derives from God's law.

Titus says the modern American judiciary has violated God's laws, with court rulings that empower citizens to decide for themselves about such matters as contraception and sexual relations, free of regulation by the state.

Biblical passages made it clear, Titus said, that God deemed marriage as the only permissible relationship in which a person could have sexual intercourse. Therefore, said Titus, it logically followed that, as a means to protect the marital relationship, states had the authority and obligation to prohibit intercourse outside of marriage.

As measured by his thesis, McDonnell's view on the matter echoed Titus's. In the thesis, he criticized a 1972 Supreme Court decision in Eisenstadt v. Baird, which declared it unconstitutional for a state to prohibit the purchase of contraceptives by an unmarried person. McDonnell wrote that the court had "illogically extended" the notion of marital privacy to unmarried persons "at a time when every state made sexual intercourse between unmarried persons a crime." In a reference to the broader issue on Titus's mind, McDonnell's thesis scorned the idea that the state should be barred from regulating aspects of private sexual behavior, excoriating the "perverted notion that each individual should be able to live out his sexual life in any way without interference from the state."

The role of women and their rights remained a fluid question in Titus's legal view. Although Titus argued emphatically that legal distinctions based on race were morally wrong and unlawful, distinctions based on sex were sometimes legally permissible, he has said, "because God created two sexes."

In 1996, McDonnell became a member of Regent's Board of Trustees, a position in which he served until 2004. By then, the Titus view on permissible sexual distinctions had become firmly rooted in university policy. Critics have cited Regent's "Equal Opportunity Policy" -- which includes a section addressing sex discrimination -- in contending that McDonnell long tolerated sexually discriminatory policies at Regent.

The third provision of the policy commits Regent to equal opportunity "without regard to gender," although "consistent with a scriptural family policy, recognizing that God created mankind male and female (as determined at birth and not subject to change), and recognizing that God instituted and defined the family as the primary civil institution of civil governance, designating a specific authority structure within the home." As biblical authority for that statement, the provision cites a passage from Ephesians, which reads: "Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church."

Titus sees the criticism against his former student as a knee-jerk display of liberal bias. "Promoting intact, one-male, one-female lifetime marriage: That was really the essence of Bob's thesis," Titus said. "And it's traceable back to Genesis 1:26-28: God commissions the family to exercise dominion, which is the very foundation of the free-enterprise system."

McDonnell is circumspect about the subject these days and openly uncomfortable with repeated attempts to have him discuss it. After taking his tour of Alexandria and sitting down in the office of a friend, he nods upon hearing Titus's name. He smiles at a reference to his days in Titus's constitutional law and common law classes where he learned about the Blackstonian view of law. Summoning another factoid, he recalled a seminal Blackstonian tenet, reciting it nearly verbatim: "This is what Blackstone said: 'The goal of the judge is to find and declare the law.' They were not to read new meaning into the Constitution."

Reminded of the praise he expressed for Titus and two other advisers in his thesis, McDonnell said he can only "remember a little bit about the class." His powerful memory for statistics and legal quotations fails him on the subjects of his thesis and the man who guided him through it. He said he can't recall many details about Titus's help on his thesis, nor can he recount much about Titus's lectures that remain memorable for others, such as Klarich. "They've got better memories than I do," he said.

Amid a series of questions about the thesis, one of McDonnell's aides protests, pointing out that, just the previous week, he spoke about the thesis for 90 minutes in a conference call with reporters.

A subdued McDonnell smiles and answers anyway. "Virtually every leader of America I've read for the last 50 years," he says, "has essentially subscribed to that view, because the more families break down, the more tax money you spend on welfare and social policy and so forth."

Bob, you need to go, the aide says finally, reminding him that he ha another appointment.

Amid the tension, McDonnell answers a few more questions before smiling at his questioner and standing to shake the man's hand. It is the quality that even critics grudgingly admire, his oceanic calm under pressure. "We should do some follow-up time and talk some more," McDonnell says.

'The Values Our Family Had'

At 21, McDonnell voted for Democrat Jimmy Carter in the 1976 presidential election, in line with his family's political views, according to one of his sisters, Eileen Reinaman. But during the next few years, as Ronald Reagan ascended, McDonnell became a Republican, as did his parents. "The traditional values in the Republican Party were the values our family had," Reinaman said.

McDonnell recalled that he began thinking more deeply about Republican Party politics while working on Capitol Hill for the party's House Policy Committee during his Regent years. But his own political goals did not take shape, he said, until after his graduation from law school, when he became intensely interested in criminal justice issues and elective politics while working for about two years as an assistant commonwealth's attorney in Virginia Beach. In early 1991, Stolle, chairman of the local Republican Party, came to his office with a question: Would McDonnell like to run for the House of Delegates against a 20-year Democratic incumbent named Glenn McClanan?

Once regarded as unbeatable, McClanan had not even faced a Republican challenger for 10 years. McDonnell's opponent didn't know anything about him. "He hadn't been involved in any major [civic] activities," McClanan recalled. "The only people who knew him were the Republicans and the Regent people."

A stream of Regent students and local Republicans went door-to-door for McDonnell with a message that McClanan was out of touch and on the wrong side of such social issues as abortion. Looking to nail down social conservative voters, McDonnell wrote a column in a local Virginia Beach publication that blasted McClanan for votes in which, McDonnell argued, McClanan had opposed efforts to curtail abortions.

McDonnell's campaign was successful, and soon he was pushing for tougher juvenile justice legislation and antiabortion bills in the House of Delegates.

McDonnell had the encouragement of then-Gov. George Allen, a Republican for whom the young legislator became a loyal foot soldier. He pushed a welfare reform package for Allen through the House that limited assistance to two years and later was a vocal advocate for Allen's effort to do away with parole in Virginia.

When Republican James S. Gilmore III became governor, McDonnell focused on aiding his most high-profile initiatives, acquiring a reputation as a reliably devoted legislative lieutenant. No Gilmore measure was more important or controversial than his successful efforts to cut the Virginia car tax. Even some Republicans like Stolle worried about a measure that would trim state programs. Stolle discussed the matter with McDonnell, only to discover that his old friend was adamantly in Gilmore's corner. "I thought some damage was being done to the state, and I felt Bob was giving Gilmore the benefit of the doubt all the time," Stolle remembered. The issue strained their relationship. "There were some tense years between Bob and I over that," Stolle adds.

But McDonnell was already on a path to leapfrogging over Republican peers, including Stolle. Having proved his fealty to party leaders and his skill at winning on their behalf, he had won their powerful friendship in turn. Simultaneously, he had built himself a rock-hard base with social conservatives. He led successful fights for a series of antiabortion measures ranging from parental consent to informed consent, a requirement that women receive information on abortion and its alternatives before receiving the procedure.

He took unsuccessful steps in the legislature toward pushing for covenant marriages -- under his proposal, couples choosing to enter covenant marriages would have been required to obtain premarital counseling and sign a declaration of intent acknowledging that marriage is a lifelong commitment -- and trying to create tax policies that would reward what he regarded as traditional families. He linked social conservatism to economic conservatism, decrying government regulation of financial markets, a prelude to a 2008 speech when, in the wake of Wall Street's near-implosion, he heralded "a war on excessive government regulation."

But if his proposals were occasionally too bold or fringe for his critics, his personal style during his House years remained winning. "He wasn't flexible, but Bob came across as gracious, and that was always one of his strengths," remembered Karen Raschke, the former government relations counsel for Planned Parenthood.

In 2003, as McDonnell contemplated running for attorney general, Stolle sat down with him, the two men having long before patched up their differences. Now Stolle wanted to protect his friend from walking straight into a political hornet's nest.

A little-known but controversial Newport News Circuit Court judge named Verbena Askew was coming up for reconfirmation. The respective Courts of Justice Committees that McDonnell and Stolle chaired in the House and Senate were slated to take up the issue.

Stolle warned McDonnell that such a hearing could be politically perilous for him; that Askew, an African American woman who had been accused of sexual harassment by a female subordinate and was the target of attacks from local lawyers for her courtroom demeanor, had a vocal band of supporters who could be expected to fire back if any attempt were made to block her reconfirmation. "I told him there were a lot of risks and that there was nothing to gain for him in chairing a hearing," Stolle said. "I said that if I chaired a hearing in the Senate instead and [Askew] was defeated there, then the whole thing would be over. But he said he wasn't going to duck it."

The two friends held a joint hearing, where Askew was rejected, the effect of which further cemented loyalties for McDonnell among Republican conservatives, a critical base in his gubernatorial race this year against Democratic state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds.

'There Are Tough Decisions'

On a Sunday morning, McDonnell is sitting in a restaurant in Washington, loosening his tie, having just come from a television interview with Fox News. No sooner had the interview begun than the host, Chris Wallace, began grilling him on the thesis. He leans back in a seat now, pokes at his cellphone, sips water. He wants to talk about anything but the thesis -- and begins ticking off measures he pushed as attorney general.

He cites his efforts on criminal justice and mental health issues, proud of the part he played in strengthening laws allowing for the civil commitment of certain sexual predators and passing Internet safety laws aimed at protecting children and consumers. "Overwhelmingly, the bills that I've championed and have gotten passed . . . are things that are dealing with everything from welfare to criminal justice . . . to homeland security to mental health," he said, coming to his main point: The Deeds campaign's assertion that his career has been an 18-year exercise in pushing an extremist social agenda is a "misrepresentation of my record."

McDonnell generally follows such vehement rebuttals with a familiar line: He is a proud economic and social conservative, someone staunchly antiabortion -- he doesn't want conservatives mistaking his temperance for equivocation. Three weeks earlier, during a discussion about his passion for the issue, he had disclosed that he knew people who had received abortions. "Absolutely, yeah," he said. "I've known people very close to me that have. And I understand -- "

He stopped in mid-sentence, never to finish it.

Asked now what he had meant, what he had come to "understand," he said, "I know there are tough decisions that people have to make, particularly when they're young. . . . So I've known several people who have shared their personal stories with me and, I'll tell you what, I've grieved with them about it and I know the impact the decision had on them. And all I tried to do was to show them love and consideration. That's who I am as a person. And I know that every human being makes mistakes."

As the days have ticked down, he has tried to send signals to social moderates that he is not to be feared, even expressing a change of heart about aspects of his thesis. The man who once ridiculed the Supreme Court's Eisenstadt decision on contraceptive rights for the unmarried and the "perverted notion" of an unregulated sexual life for citizens now says he wouldn't want the government to interfere in such matters. He seeks to project nothing so much as flexibility.

In moments of frustration, he wonders whether some analysts and voters even listen when he tries talking about anything other than social issues. Long ago, his fervor on abortion and other social questions catapulted his career. Now, at the 11th hour of this campaign, he is realizing just how challenging it is to stop admirers and critics alike from fixating on those passionate moments from his past that so stirred them, for better or worse. He sees an explanation for the heat: "Debates on marriage and life are the ones that are the most high-pitched," he said. "People remember things based on controversy."

Amid the flak, his sister and aides revere what they regard as his impervious composure, which revealed itself early when the doubled-over boy trudged back onto a football field. The grim tenacity he exhibited under pressure then manifests itself in a disciplined affability now, a resolve to show skeptics that he is an easygoing man who isn't going to take them anywhere they don't want to go.

If the poll numbers are a reliable indicator, some uncertain voters are still trying to reconcile the different parts of him -- the determined boy of Bishop Ireton, the passionate idealist of Regent, and this gray-haired, grinning 55-year-old in a restaurant. McDonnell's challenge in the campaign's final three weeks is to reveal himself for undecided Virginians as someone other than an enigma who wrote a paper.

He knows it. "I have all these other years that I've lived," he said, hoping that enough voters are listening.

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