Va. Governor's Race Erupts Over McDonnell's Past Views

Bob McDonnell speaks at the Prince William County Fair in Manassas this month.
Bob McDonnell speaks at the Prince William County Fair in Manassas this month. (By Jonathan Ernst For The Washington Post)
Anita Kumar and Rosalind Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 1, 2009; 1:00 PM

The Virginia governor's race ignited Monday over Republican Robert F. McDonnell's 20-year-old graduate thesis: Democrats assailed him in e-mail blasts and interviews for what he wrote about working women, homosexuals and "fornicators," and McDonnell tried to explain his views to crucial moderate and female voters.

Washington Post staff writers Anita Kumar and Rosalind Halderman were online Tuesday, Sept. 1, at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the fallout and reaction.

"I'm disappointed but not surprised that my opponent wants to make this a central issue in the campaign," said McDonnell, the former state attorney general and a 14-year veteran of the House of Delegates. "During my years in the General Assembly, Senator Deeds would suggest that I have this undue focus on social issues. That's just a flat misrepresentation."


Anita Kumar: Hi. Anita and Roz here to take your questions about our story about Bob McDonnell.


Arlington, Va.: Thank you for taking my question. I want to know if McDonnell is still a practicing Catholic.

His controversial thesis from Regent University has really opened my eyes. As a Catholic I am extremely offended by the anti-Catholic rhetoric of Pat Robertson and his ilk over at Regent University. This thesis has opened up a whole new angle to the gubernatorial race that I am very concerned about. Governor's Race Erupts Over McDonnell's Past Views (Post, Sept. 1)

Anita Kumar: Thanks for the question. Yes, McDonnell is a practicing Catholic and talks frequents about how important his faith is to him. He attends church weekly. At Regent University, he was sole Catholic in his graduating class. He would the state's second Catholic governor, if elected, after Gov. Tim Kaine.


Prescott, Ariz.: I have found this fascinating. How does McDonnell get over the fact that part of his thesis discusses how his reactionary views aren't truly popular, therefore someone like himself must tone them down until they achieve true power, then they must ignore the populace and reveal their true hard-right ideology in governance? Seems to me that claiming he isn't a hard-right Christian Dominionist is just what he wrote he would have to do to get elected.

Roz Helderman: Thanks for reading. It is indeed the case that McDonnell writes in the 1989 thesis about what kind of public message socially conservative candidates must put forward to make them acceptable to the public. You raise an interesting conundrum for him in how to respond. What he has so far said is that many of his views, particularly about working women, have changed since he wrote the thesis 20 years ago. It will be for voters to decide if they believe him.


Arlington, Va.: My excuse is I was 21 when I wrote my senior thesis and had never had a real job. He was 35 and getting his masters/JD! He draws wildly inconsistent conclusions from one page to the next and runs roughshod over entire centuries of western history and philosophical thought. I'm more concerned with his analytical skills and judgment than the actual viewpoints he espouses. He says he's changed his views on women working in the last 20 years, but has he also gotten better at analyzing problems and drawing sensible conclusions?

Roz Helderman: Thank you for sharing your opinion.


Washington, D.C.: When was the thesis obtained by the reporters? Was the story held for a more propitious time -- say, just about Labor Day when voters traditionally tune in to the governor's race? In my ten years in this area the Post (both in reporting and editorializing) has consistently been hostile to Republican statewide candidates in Virginia who are self-described conservatives (see the treatment of George Allen in his last Senate race).

Anita Kumar: We recently obtained the thesis. Bob McDonnell mentioned the thesis a couple weeks ago when we were interviewing him for another story. We then went to find it. As we indicated in the story, it is available at the Regent library and has likely been there for 20 years. We did not wait to publish the story until Labor Day. We published the story after we finished our reporting, which included receiving comments from his campaign.


Cumberland, Md.: I believe this is nothing but an example of the liberal press, and WAPO trying to influence the outcome of the election. I don't think a thesis that old is relevant except to smear a candidate. If it is relevant why didn't the press make more of Obama's college writings?

Roz Helderman: Thank you for sharing your thoughts. The thesis was Bob McDonnell's own writings, discussing in depth his opinions about the role of government in society just before he first sought public office. He says today that many of his views have changed in the last 20 years. Some voters might find this document irrelevant in deciding how to vote. Others might find it useful information. As for President Obama, I did not cover that election, but as a reader, I seem to recall a great deal of discussion about Obama's past before he was elected.


Bellaire, Tex.: Will this be McDonnell's Macaca moment?

Anita Kumar: It in unclear how the thesis will play out in the race, but the Democrats and McDonnell's opponent Creigh Deeds will continue to try to use the thesis during the remainder of the race. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a TV ad already in the works.


Arlington, Va.: Technically speaking, if the traditional family consists of a heterosexual couple with children, then working women, "cohabitors" and homosexuals certainly don't further that situation thus they could constitute a threat. So he wasn't necessarily wrong, just unpopular.

Roz Helderman: He certainly is not the only one who has ever expressed this point of view. There are plenty of folks who disagree. And, of course, in some senses, elections are the purest form of popularity contests. Holding unpopular views is often how they are lost!


Arlington, Va.: Good job documenting what most of us who deal with the Virginia legislature and administration have long known -- McDonnell is very socially conservative. His attempts to portray himself otherwise during this campaign demonstrate that he realizes this is a weakness.

Anita Kumar: Democrats have long accused McDonnell of trying to moderate his views in the last few years as has run statewide -- first for attorney general and now for governor. He does not talk about abortion or other social issues that he was known for in the General Assembly but issues like education, energy and the environment.


Arlington, Va: Some conservatives have told me that this thesis thing is just another example of the Post sandbagging a conservative, pretty much as it did by harping on George Allen's macaca moment. How did the Post manage to dredge this up anyway?

Roz Helderman: Bob McDonnell mentioned the thesis in a recent interview. He told our colleague Amy Gardner that he had written about welfare reform. She was curious to see what he had to say and so went looking for it. It is available to the public at Regent's library.


St. Louis: A thesis is usually "defended" before a panel of professors. Do you think McDonnell should confront the questions in a press conference and not dodge them?

Roz Helderman: McDonnell did in fact hold a lengthy call with reporters yesterday. He stayed on the phone for almost 90 minutes and answered questions from about 25 reporters. He defended some of the views expressed in the thesis and said life experiences over the last two decades had led him to change his mind about others, particularly about women in the workforce.


Midlothian, Va.: I'm appalled by the attempts of the McDonnell campaign to act as though McDonnell were a college freshman when he wrote this thesis. He was a 34-year-old law student, not some callow youth.

The truth about what he really was at the time puts a whole new spin on his misogynistic writings. I can forgive an 18-year-old child for writing stupidity, but not a 34-year-old who, moreover, turned around and did all he could in the General Assembly to put his writings into law.

Another lie is that he wrote this during the "Reagan era." I might not be a Ph.D., but I'm quite sure that George Bush was president in 1989 which it was written -- not Ronald Reagan. That's another ingenuous attempt to mislead the public about the age of these writings.

Anita Kumar: You are correct that McDonnell was a 34-year-old married father of two when he wrote this thesis in 1988. He had been working full time and was in the military when he decided to go back to school. McDonnell admits he was an adult when he wrote this but says it reflected the times and his upbringing in a Democratic, middle class Catholic where he learned that "family was the bedrock society." But he said his views changed over the two decades with his life experiences including raising his five children.


New York: Does McDonnell have any daughters? Any gay staffers or friends? Just wondering what they say about all this. Thanks.

Roz Helderman: McDonnell has three daughters and two sons. Both of his two older daughters work--his eldest was an Army platoon commander in Iraq. He has pointed to his support for his working daughters (and wife)as evidence that he is not troubled by women in the workplace.


New York: What grade did he get?

Roz Helderman: You know, I don't know. But he received his law degree soon after and is considered something of a distinguished alum for Regent, so I imagine he did fairly well.


Arlington, Va.: Lost in the heated discussion around this thesis is that he seems to have implied that it demonstrated some expertise on welfare reform when in reality that was a minor topic. He was fudging his quals.

Roz Helderman: Thanks for sharing. Welfare reform is an issue he clearly had an interest in. He worked on it soon after he was elected to the House of Delegates.


Virginia Beach, Va.: I'm a former Regent employee and can tell you categorically that McDonnell's thesis is very much in line with both his and Pat Robertson's viewpoints. McDonnell has served on the Board of the University and the Board of the Law School over the years and his sister is a former Vice President. Believe me when I say that what you see in that thesis is the true McDonnell. He has cloaked himself in moderation to be more palatable to the electorate.

Look into his record in the GA and his dealing with Judge Verbena Askew....

Roz Helderman: Thank you for sharing your viewpoint. I'd be interested in hearing more about your memories of McDonnell. Could you email me? I'm at


Wow.: The thesis ranks corporal punishment with patriotism and academic achievement as foundations of a strong family. I guess my family is weak, but I prefer it that way.

Incidentally, I'd have failed my Master's defense if I'd submitted anything so lacking in facts as this thesis.

Roz Helderman: Thank you for sharing.


Prince William Co.: Jeff Frederick posted this on Twitter earlier today:

"Should a candidate be judged on what he wrote when he was 34? Personally, I don't know, but he judged me on what I said when I was 33..."

Anita Kumar: I don't know exactly what your question is here. But yes, I did see that Jeff Frederick, a member of the House of Delegates from Prince William County, sent this statement out via Twitter. What Frederick said has some merit but is not the full story. As many of you may know, Frederick was the chairman of the state GOP in Virginia until he was removed in April after he was accused of a series of financial missteps, internal disagreements and political gaffes. He was not removed for making one particular comment or expressing one particular view, according to State Central Committee members who voted on the change. McDonnell and many of the party's other political leaders called for Frederick to step aside.


Accomac, Va.: As one blogger noted, the Post published 27 stories in 7 days about George Allen's macaca comment, in an attempt to flood the zone and turn the tide against Allen. Will you meet or surpass that total in the next few days in order to try to help Deeds win?

Roz Helderman: There's been a lot of interest in this story. We feel it's important piece of the campaign to cover and we'll be doing so in coming days. But we certainly have no interest in trying to help Deeds win.


To Cumberland, Md.: "I don't think a thesis that old is relevant except to smear a candidate. "

Hmmm...I wonder what Cumberland's feeling were about an "old speech" given by Sonia Sotomayor. Conservatives just spent 6 weeks demonizing someone over two words ("wise latina") and now they are outraged about a thesis written to graduate from a college?

Isn't this rather hypocritical?

Roz Helderman: Thanks for your view. Both sides seem to pick and choose when past writings should be considered relevant in a campaign. Republicans in this campaign are noting that Democrats were far less interested in 2006 in discussing now Sen. Jim Webb's writings about women in the military. (He wrote a 1979 magazine article headlined "Why Women Can't Fight.) Of course, some of the same Republicans this year arguing that McDonnell's thesis is irrelevent, were arguing in 2006 that Webb's was critical!


New York: Not that I'm in the habit of defending conservative politicians, but this paper is 20 years old. Isn't it important to know how he has conducted himself in his recent public endeavors? That information, however, warranted a brief paragraph lower in the story. My question would be, what has he been putting into practice? Thanks.

Anita Kumar: I both are important and the Washington Post will continue to explore both. This particular article was about his thesis but included information about his record after he was elected to the House of Delegates. We will be writing more articles about his record. But writing about the thesis is valid for a couple reasons -- he was an adult at the time this was written and because his critics have long accused him of turning his back on his conservative views when he decided to run for statewide office.


Washington, D.C.: Has there been any backlash against McDonnell for turning away from his conservative ideology after this article came out?

Roz Helderman: There have been a few conservatives expressing some, so far mild, displeasure with McDonnell for some of his responses. Still, Republicans have lost several statewide elections in a row in Virginia and are hungry for a win. Many conservatives, even if privately displeased with some of his rhetoric, may continue to support McDonnell enthusiastically in hopes of getting the GOP back in the governor's mansion.


Fairfax, Va.: Did the Deeds camp ever mention the thesis to Post reporters?

Anita Kumar: I wrote earlier that McDonnell himself was the one who mentioned his thesis in an interview with a Washington Post reporter who was working on another story. I don't think the Deeds campaign knew about the thesis or they would have likely used it. In fact, I have heard many Democrats say in the last few days that they wished Deeds had had the thesis in 2005 when the two men were running for attorney general. McDonnell won that race by only 360 votes and some Democrats think the thesis could have swayed enough people that Deeds could have won that race.


Foggy bottom dweller: I found the story about McDonnell's thesis fascinating and I'm concerned about what it reveals about both his philosophy and his intellectual abilities. I knew that conservatives would complain about dredging up such an old document. Do they not recall the furor over one of Hillary Clinton's law school papers? And that was when her HUSBAND was running for office. I also recall an attempt to use one of President Obama's undergraduate papers against him. It's reasonable to question the relevance of a old school paper but bringing this kind of thing up now seems to be SOP.

Roz Helderman: Another view about the possible relevance of the thesis.


standards: Wouldn't it be more accurate for the hed to be "Past Writings" as opposed to "Past Views"? And will there be just as much devoted to Deeds' writings?

Roz Helderman: While McDonnell has called the thesis an "academic exercise," I don't think he has really claimed he never held these views. Only that some of his positions have changed over time. And, yes, we're looking at both candidate's pasts and if we turn up any Deeds writings of note, we'll write about them as well.


Fairfax, Va.: What is Amy Gardner doing going off and pulling the thesis? McDonnell said he studied "welfare reform" in the thesis. So Gardner was supposed to write that he built expertise on welfare reform while writing his thesis. Instead, she went beyond her search warrant and pulled the actual thesis itself. That's muckraking and doesn't belong in the Post.

Roz Helderman: I'm sorry you think so. I do not agree. McDonnell mentioned the thesis himself in a recent interview. How is muckraking to then go and find a copy of the publicly available document?


Arlington, VA: I've lived in VA for a year now so this will be the first Governor's race I vote in VA for. I am an (gay Catholic) Independent voter, however I have voted moreso for Democrats in the past and was an enthusiastic Obama voter, volunteer, and contributor in 2008.

I voted for Deeds in the Primary simply because I didn't want the other two Democrats having a chance to win in November.

I was leaning towards voting for McDonnell before the article on Sunday and frankly it hasn't changed my mind. It was written 20 years ago and McDonnell has shown his views on most of those issues have changed. While I would like him to support gay marriage, the economy and transportation is more important to me now which is why I'm supporting McDonnell. I feel he is the better candidate for handling both of these issues.

But I don't think the article was intended to be the "liberal bias" some have talked about - we have to remember these words came from McDonnell himself and not the writers at the WaPo. I think people nowadays are too quick to yell "character assault" at every piece of reporting.

Please continue to do a good job at reporting.

Roz Helderman: Thanks for the compliment and for sharing your views.


Alexandria, Va.: With McDonnell ahead in pre-voting polls by double-digits over Deeds, do you think the flap over McDonnell's thesis will be enough to make the race competitive.

Anita Kumar: Everyone involved, Democrats and Republicans, believe this race will be competitive -- unrelated to the thesis. McDonnell is currently leading in virtually every poll but that was expected to change as the election drew closer. (Historically many people don't start paying attention to the race until after Labor Day.) But the thesis could certainly change the dynamics of the race. That depends in part on how aggressive the Democrats will be in using the thesis. In the last few days, they have been very aggressive with press conferences and releases -- both in the state and even nationally. They will try to keep McDonnell on the defensive about this until Election Day.


Manassas, Va.: When will we get the expose on Deeds, what he said to his teacher or neighbor? Or is this just treatment for McDonnell and the Post making a macaca out of a molehill?

BTW whats with all the questions from N.Y., etc. - they don't get to vote for MY governor!

Roz Helderman: Thank you for sharing. I can assure you, we're doing research on both candidates.


Charlottesville: It's interesting that some of the conservatives are accusing the Post of only publishing this because they want to help Deeds win. I don't recall the Post refusing to publish articles critical of Bill Clinton when he was both a candidate and president. Maybe the Post publishes things that are newsworthy, and if the conservatives don't like the press that their guys are getting, maybe they can find candidates who are less adept at putting their feet in their mouths.

I'm not sure how you can construct a smear campaign out of a candidate's own words, whether it's George Allen making idiotic statements or McDonnell spelling out his views on law and it's role in society.

Roz Helderman: And another view point.


Richmond: If McDonnell said he wrote his thesis about welfare reform, did your reporter ever find the connection? If so, what is it? (e.g., that welfare shouldn't go to gays, working mothers, fornicators or people practicing birth control.)

Anita Kumar: Actually, I think McDonnell said he wrote the thesis as he thought about families and how families are what he calls the "bedrock of society." but McDonnell has mentioned several times that he worked on welfare reform while he was a legislator and that people just need to look at the bill he carried on the subject (at the request of former Governor George Allen) to understand his views on families and women. We will be exploring that very subject at a later day so stay tuned.


Upstate NY: For the reporter who was interviewing Mr. McDonnell when he mentioned the thesis, was there any sense that he perhaps slipped up by discussing it? Do you think he realized that he may have opened up a can of worms?

Roz Helderman: You know, that's an interesting question. I'm not certain.


Annapolis, Md.: " ... his critics have long accused him of turning his back on his conservative views when he decided to run for statewide office ..."

Insert the words "ultra-liberal" into the above sentence and then insert Barack Obama instead of Robert F. McDonnell and see how far the Washington Post would take their supposed "investigative journalism."

My guess would be not very far.

The hypocritical bent of the Post reporters on this story is appalling.

Roz Helderman: Thank you for the comment.


Fairfax County, Virginia: Just a comment. To the extent that there's a similar dynamic to George Allen's macaca moment (from my point of view the similarity is: candidate shot himself in the foot with his own words in an unforced error, abruptly changing his image from bland nice guy to something else), I think Webb handled it better than Deeds has. Or do I have amnesia about this?

I'm recalling that Webb went for the no-comment, above the fray, if your opponent is digging himself a hole stay out of his way approach. Is that right? Whether or not my memory has failed, certainly Deeds has taken precisely the opposite tactic. I don't think either is morally incorrect, but suspect the no-comment, above-the-fray approach would be more astute politically.

Roz Helderman: I did not cover the 2006 race. I think you may be right that the Deeds campaign has more quickly seized on this issue than did Webb with macaca in that year. Of course, there are some dramatic differences between the two situations too. For one thing, macaca came out of the blue and likely was a surprise for both campaigns. In this case, while the Deeds camp may not have been expecting the thesis, they've been arguing for a long time that McDonnell is far more conservative than he is telling voters this year. They've been looking for an "in" to that conversation, and they think they've found one. We've heard from several people, however, who think they are overplaying the situation and would do better to take the high road. Time will tell.


Arlington, VA: So he's changed his mind about women working outside the home, but what about every other policy suggestion in the thesis? It sounded to me like he was suggesting that unmarried mothers shouldn't qualify for welfare, among other things, because we shouldn't reward sinners.

Anita Kumar: Yes, McDonnell has said he changed his mind about women in the workforce. He said in a conference call with reporters that he has changed his mind on some views in the thesis he expressed in the thesis but not on others. Overall, he says he no longer believes discrimination against gays and other groups is acceptable. But he says he still supports the same views he has held on abortion and covenant marriage -- which is an upgraded type of marriage that makes it more difficult to get divorced.


Herndon, VA: Do you think it possible that the academic environment has a profound effect on the student?

Regent's is a very conservative environment and this thesis puts forth some very extreme views on family that might only be endorsed at that place. Harvard and Duke which are extremely liberal institutions have put forth extreme views of family completely opposite and probably equally outside the mainstream.

My point is we that it is possible that once outside the constricted atmosphere of Regent that his views really did change in accord with the real world in which he campaigned and legislated and practiced law?

Roz Helderman: That's absolutely possible and is somewhat similar to what McDonnell has said about his own views. It's worth noting, of course, that at age 34, McDonnell moved his family across the country because he was seeking out the education offered at what was then called CBN, after the Christian Broadcasting Network. And he certainly remains proud of his connection to Regent.


Fringe/Militia: Do you think Webb's paper against women in the infantry helped him or hurt him in the eyes of moderate Virginians? I'm trying to get a feel for how well you two know this state.

Roz Helderman: I suspect it hurt him with some--there were television commercials aired during that campaign featuring women who had served in the military talking about how hurtful they had found the article. Others probably agreed with the opinions expressed in the article. And still others concluded it was not relevent to their vote. Like this year, Webb argued that his decades old article did not represent his current views.


Centreville, Va.: During the Democratic primary, the Post endorsed Deeds at least partially because of his transportation plan. Somehow, he still hasn't produced one, apart from a few vague generalities, but Bob McDonnell has produced a detailed plan.

Yet you find this 20-year-old academic paper worth concentrating your paper's newsprint, resources, and not inconsiderable influence (at least in Northern Virginia) on. Will you turn back to the issues that matter to Virginians- such as transportation, jobs, and taxes- once Deeds produces a plan of some sort that shows he actually has thought about improving the lives of ordinary Virginians?

Anita Kumar: A couple points to make about your question.

First, Roz and I are news reporters and we have no interaction with the editorial board, which endorsed Deeds in the primary. In fact, I read the editorial the night it appeared online just like everyone else.

We do think it is important to cover the issues. We have written several articles about both candidate's transportation plans, including one that also ran on the front page of the newspaper a few weeks ago. We have many times mentioned what McDonnell's plan for transportation plan is and that Deeds has not said how he will fund his plan. And we will continue to write about issues up until Election Day.


Roz Helderman: Okay everyone, it's time for Anita and I to get back to work. But thank you all for joining us and for reading. Have a nice afternoon.


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