McDonnell: A Razor-Sharp but Selective Memory

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."

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