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On McDonnell: Is Thesis Old News? On Metro: Holiday Disruption of Service

Reaction From Republicans, Democrats, Voters

Robert McCartney
Robert McCartney (The Washington Post)
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Robert McCartney
Washington Post Metro Columnist
Thursday, September 3, 2009; 12:00 PM

Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney was online Thursday, Sept. 3, at Noon ETM to discuss Robert F. McDonnell, Republican candidate for Virginia governor, and reaction to his 1989 thesis which expressed his views about women in the workplace, contraception and homosexuality. Plus, Metro and the announced closures of three stations over the holiday weekend. Metro board members said Wednesday that the agency failed to give enough information and advance notice of the disruption. McCartney will have reaction.

This Story

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washingtonpost.com: McDonnell Says Thesis Is Old News. Is It? (Post, Sept. 3)

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Robert McCartney: Hello everybody. Today we'll be talking mostly about the Virginia governor's race and the Metro system's latest travails, but I welcome questions on any local Washington region topic.

Robert McCartney: By the way, my column this morning was about the controversy over GOP candidate Bob McDonnell's 1989 master's thesis. Also, this morning there's been a Metrobus accident in which a woman jogger in Northwest was taken to the hospital with serious injuries.

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Baltimore, Md.: Mr. McCartney: As you are obviously a person of Irish descent, perhaps you would be the perfect reporter to pose this question to Mr. McDonnell. Why did he, a man who proclaims himself a staunch Catholic, choose when in his early 30s to go to Regent University, a school founded by Pat Robertson, who never made any secret of his anti-Catholicism, anti-Papist theology? The only conclusion I can reach is that McDonnell set aside his religious beliefs in order to go to a school that, even 20 years ago, had become a launching pad for hard right young conservatives with political ambitions. In other words, being true to his faith was not as important as getting his ticket punched.

Even as Mr. McDonnell tries to downplay the viewpoints in his thesis, I somehow find his religious flexibility almost as troubling. As I said to someone, it's a bit like a Zionist Jew deciding to go the University of Riyadh in order to make contacts in the oil business.

Robert McCartney: I agree it's quite interesting that a Roman Catholic such as Bob McDonnell chose to go to Regent University. The school is dominated by the Protestant fundamentalist outlook of its founder, Pat Robertson. I haven't seen any comments by McDonnell about the choice.

However, in the late 1980s, there was a de facto political-cultural alliance between right-wing Catholics and Protestants. They were brought together largely by shared opposition to abortion, of course. But they also had in common views (negative ones) on many other issues -- the weakening of traditional family structures, pornography and homosexuality, for instance.

I do not know for a fact that Robertson and Regent has an openly anti-Catholic, "anti-Papist" perspective, although it wouldn't surprise me. It wouldn't surprise me, either, if McDonnell felt Regent was a good political launching pad for a social conservative such as himself.

By the way, I am of mostly Scot-Irish descent, with a healthy dose of German, plus some English and Danish. White American mongrel.

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Purcellville, Va.: Thanks for your commentary on the McDonnell thesis. While the candidate's supporters blow it off as something he wrote decades ago, I feel it is relevant if he carried out this agenda in his legislative actions. Frankly, I've been puzzled by McDonnell's high poll numbers given his reputation as a social conservative due to the bills he's introduced. Do you think voters were just unaware of his record (and his connection to Pat Robertson)? Will the Post be writing an article "connecting the dots" between the points in his thesis and the bills he actually introduced?

washingtonpost.com: McDonnell Says Thesis Is Old News. Is It? (Post, Sept. 3)

Robert McCartney:

The Post's original story on the thesis, published Sunday, covered some of this. It said that in his 14 years in the General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals that he laid out in the thesis, including abortion restrictions, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to support the traditional family.

McDonnell responded in part that his views on the family were best represented by his 1995 welfare reform legislation, which included child day care so women would have greater freedom to work.

The McDonnell camp has also said that the vast majority of bills introduced or sponsored by him were not about hot-button social-cultural issues, but about matters such as economic development and crime and justice.

As for McDonnell's high poll numbers so far, I think he has benefited from a backlash against what is perceived as big government spending and big government excess at the national level in Washington. Also, many voters were not aware of his origins as a conservative cultural activist. The Democrats are happy to have the thesis surface to help establish that background for McDonnell.

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washingtonpost.com: '89 Thesis A Different Side of McDonnell (Post, Aug. 30)

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Silver Spring, Md.: While enduring another Red Line delay this morning due to doors not closing at Brookland I read the board was not informed of the decision to close the DCA station. Will the board finally take some action and fire Catoe for his incompetence? How hard would it have been to schedule this work on the Indigenous People's Day weekend, when the systems usage would be DOWN significantly?

Robert McCartney:

There's a bit of dispute about whether the board was informed. As my colleagues James Hohmann and Lena Sun reported this morning, an e-mail from Catoe to board members on Aug. 26 said there would be a Labor Day shutdown on the yellow and blue lines.

However, board members said they didn't realize the extent of what was coming, i.e., that 3 stations including the one at Reagan National Airport (DCA) were going to close from Friday evening to Tuesday morning of Labor Day weekend.

I think the point is not whether the board was informed, anyway. Why weren't RIDERS better informed? It seems very well established that nothing went out to the public spelling out explicitly that these stations were going to be shut down.

As for firing Catoe, he's made mistakes, for sure, but my understanding is that he's retained the support of the board for being knowledgeable and responsive in tough circumstances. The questions there are: Do we really think somebody else would be significantly better? And how long would it take somebody new to get up to speed?

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Fairfax, Va.: The ungrateful among us should remember how lucky we are to have John Catoe now, and what the Metro system was like before his arrival. Catoe is the 2009 American Public Transportation Association "Manager of the Year." We're lucky to have the best transit manager in the USA to deal with the customers and the problems they present to Metro.

Robert McCartney: Here's a very different view of Catoe.

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McCartney: Oh wait, this isn't Paul McCartney, the former Beatle. Never mind.

Robert McCartney:

No relation, unfortunately. I get a question about this in the majority of my chats.

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Washington, D.C.: Re: Letters section in today's WP re: McDonnell. Great column today, Robert! But I was taken aback when I turned to today's letters section and found that 3 of the 5 -- a ratio I assume roughly mirrors the ones not published -- staunchly (if absurdly) defend him AND skewer the Post for reporting on the thesis.

So here's my question: Do you have any sense of whether this the story may end up just solidifying existing opinion, or will ultimately prove to be a (if not the) decisive factor?

Robert McCartney:

Assuming the published letters to the editor do in fact reflect (approximately) what the editorial page received, it doesn't surprise me that they were 3 to 2 defending McDonnell. The controversy over the thesis has energized the GOP right-wing base, by casting him as a victim of the Democrats, The Post and (in their perspective, no doubt) evil-doers generally.

As for your question, it's way too early to say that this, or any single event, will prove decisive in the race. Most voters haven't even started paying attention to the campaign, and won't do so until after Labor Day. The result will be decided by voters who haven't yet tuned in.

That said, this controversy is a plus for the Democrats in that it publicly establishes early the image of McDonnell as somebody who -- at least 20 years ago -- was a passionate right-wing culture warrior. He'll be under pressure for some time to explain how his views have evolved.

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McDonnell on contraception: As one of many married women who has practiced artificial birth control without a moment's shame -- in fact, I feel nothing but pride in taking responsibility for my own fertility -- I find Bob McDonnell's view expressed in opposition incredibly offensive. Do you think this will lead to a macaca-sized backlash against him?

Robert McCartney:

I agree that the fact that contraception has arisen as an issue is really intriguing here. The history of this needs to be understood, though.

In the thesis, McDonnell criticized a landmark 1965 Supreme Court decision, Griswold v. Connecticut. The court invalidated a Connecticut law that prohibited the use of contraceptives. In that decision, the court ruled for the first time that the Constitution included a "right to privacy."

Now, that decision causes heartburn for social conservatives on two grounds. First, some conservatives oppose the use of contraception. McDonnell is a Roman Catholic, and the church's position is against contraception. Conservatives don't like to talk about the issue, because it's a political loser, for sure.

Second, and this is crucial, Griswold v. Connecticut also laid the basis for a much more controversial Supreme Court decision: Roe v. Wade. So when McDonnell criticized Griswold, he was also aiming an arrow at Roe and at abortion rights.

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washingtonpost.com: Letters to the Editor (Post, Sept. 3)

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Delaware: Is there anywhere that we can read the thesis for ourselves online?

washingtonpost.com: McDonnell Thesis

Robert McCartney:

Oh yes, The Post's Web site has a link to the thesis. It's been available since Sunday. It's 93 pages, including footnotes. Much of it is written in a dry, academic tone, but it also includes appeals to the Republican party to take the lead in promoting policies and politics to protect the traditional family. This includes fighting homosexuality and encouraging mothers to stay at home with their children.

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D.C.: How do I know if I'm a "fornicator". What does he mean by that?

Is an anti-fornication candidate going to appeal to men? I think I'm pro-fornication, my wife -- less so. So, maybe he's more pro-woman than it might appear.

Robert McCartney:

Yes, well, my view is that McDonnell loses for sure if the fornicators all vote for Deeds.

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Arlington, Va.: The Metro transportation system before Catoe had an acting manager who was well-respected, who left for a position in the Williams administration.

The Metrorail system also hadn't, um, killed anybody.

Robert McCartney:

Another point of view.

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Fairfax County, Va.: I think this is also a plus for Democrats because it's gotten grassroots volunteers to wake up. Around here, most probably favored either Moran or McAuliffe in the primary and needed to get over that loss. Others are going all out on the health-care 'campaign,' with town halls, vigils, canvassing, and more. Others have been on vacation or in economic distress.

Now, I sense that volunteers have tuned in on the race. There were some before, but there seem to be more now. At a Deeds thing I went to last night, women were mad. Really, really angry. I am a woman and I was a little surprised just how mad they were.

Robert McCartney:

I think the thesis issue has energized BOTH bases. That's what these hot-button social issues do.

One thing to keep in mind: Whoever is governor will spend a lot more time on transportation, budget and education issues than on anything involved in the thesis. McDonnell is hoping voters will focus on that by November.

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Leesburg, Va.: So much has been reported about the Virginia's GOP's shift to the right, to the point that moderate Republicans have retired from office or been pushed out in primaries. So why should anyone believe the party leaders in their convention would nominate a moderate for governor?

Robert McCartney:

I think it's certainly hard for a moderate Republican to get nominated in Virginia if one is referring to the kind of middle-of-the-road, "Rockefeller Republicans" from the 1960s and 1970s. Locally, I'm thinking of people like Sen. Charles (Mac) Mathias of Maryland or, more recently, Rep. Connie Morella from Montgomery County. They were too liberal for the Old Dominion.

However, as conservative columnist Michael Gerson wrote on The Post's op-ed page the other day: McDonnell was succeeding, in the early going, with a new kind of Republican campaign. Even though his origins were as a right-wing culture warrior, he was NOT emphasizing those issues. I heard him speak twice this week in Fredericksburg. He did not mention social issues. It was mostly about promoting economic development by keeping taxes low and cutting government regulation, and about keeping the federal government out of state's affairs. (He loves to praise the 10th Amendment, which he calls "the forgotten amendment," which protects states' rights.)

So I think the GOP could succeed by saying: We believe in this conservative cultural stuff, but we recognize we're in the minority on this, so we'll set that stuff aside and do what needs to be done to get government off your backs.

The problem for Republicans is that perhaps a fifth or a quarter of the electorate LIKES the right-wing cultural stuff. And those are the folks most likely to be excited enough by the issues to knock on doors, send Tweets, work Facebook, work the phones, etc. etc.

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Contraception: Thank you for a brief moment of clarity. Pro-choice people like myself often get frustrated when anti-choicers are reported as saying that Roe is based on "bad law,' but the media do not highlight that the "bad law" they are talking about is the right for Americans to use contraception. If the fact that the anti-abortion movement is, at its heart, anti-contraception, I think the way Americans view this movement would definitely shift.

Robert McCartney:

Flattery will get you everywhere.

However, this oversimplifies things a bit. Conservatives point out that the (then-liberal) Supreme Court found a "right to privacy" in the Constitution that, um, isn't found in the document in those words. So reasonable people can disagree about the rightness of that.

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Alexandria, Va.: What's this Catoe "award" business? Has he accepted said award? Can't he decline it or give it back after all that's happened with Metro this summer? There's a big difference between "losing your job" and being named the #1 Manager in America!

Robert McCartney:

Before the Red Line crash and other unfortunate events, Catoe was the most recent recipient of the principal "transit system manager of the year award."

I don't think he's planning to give it back.

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washingtonpost.com: Michael Gerson: A Virginia Model For a GOP Comeback? (Post, Aug. 28)

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McDonnell: Mr. McCartney, Is it possible for a white male to comprehend women's concerns for the patriarchal, theocratic views expressed in the thesis, and Mr. McDonnell's voting record?

Robert McCartney:

Gee, how can I as a white male answer that objectively.

Let me propose an analogy. Many white people have concerns about mistreatment of and discrimination against African Americans. Lyndon Johnson led the fight for landmark civil rights legislation in the 1960s even though he was a white man.

So, if white men could be leaders in the fight for equality for blacks, then can't men comprehend women's concerns for McDonnell's views?

The 7 judges who voted to overturn the anti-contraception law in 1965 were ... men.

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Woodbridge Va: How do you respond to Michael Barrone's analysis of your work?

Barone: 'Is the Washington Post Trying to "Macaca" Bob McDonnell?' (Media Research Center)

Personally, I think he hit the nail on the head but would like to hear your response.

Robert McCartney: I haven't had a chance to read this, and won't have time before we run out of time. Based on the headline, I imagine he -- like some other conservatives -- is accusing us of waging a partisan campaign to hurt McDonnell as our coverage of then-Sen. George Allen's "macaca" comment allegedly led to his defeat.

I would note two points. One, our reporter Amy Gardner went looking for the thesis after McDonnell mentioned it to her. Two, the "macaca" controversy was driven not by our coverage but by the video of the incident that went viral on YouTube.

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Locally, I'm thinking of people like Sen. Charles (Mac) Mathias of Maryland or, more recently, Rep. Connie Morella from Montgomery County: Please don't forget the late, marvelous Gilbert Gude. He served something like 14 or 16 terms in Congress, as I recall.

Robert McCartney: Yes, Gude, too.

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Washington, D.C.: Do you think Metro will rescind this weekend's decision to close three stations due to the public outcry? And do you think it's just a matter of time before Catoe resigns or is forced to?

Robert McCartney:

I don't have any reason to believe that Metro will rescind the decision to close the 3 stations. They need to do the maintenance work; a holiday weekend is a good time.

The lesson is: If you're going to close stations, tell the public clearly ahead of time.

And I don't think it's just a matter of time before Catoe resigns or is forced to. The board is with him, based on what I've heard. Admittedly, I haven't been doing any digging on this topic recently. My colleagues James Hohmann, Lena Sun and Bob Thomson (Dr. Gridlock) would be in a better position to answer.

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Bethesda, Md.: Catoe is slated to actually receive the award at the APTA Annual Meeting in October. Thus, there's still time to bow out. Might be time for an enterprising journalist to ASK Catoe whether plans to go forward with accepting this award.

Robert McCartney:

Thanks for clarifying what the award is and when it's being given.

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Re: McDonnell: It's interesting. I'm a staunch Dem, but I just don't see the big deal about the paper. First, I wouldn't want to be judged by what I wrote in college. But, more importantly, is anyone really shocked that a Catholic Republican is anti-gay rights, anti-abortion, and anti-contraception? I think the WaPo article got it right -- he probably still feels these things, and realizes what politically is just too far out of the box in 2009. Again, no shocking revelation there.

I mean, I was once required to write a paper against multi-racial adoption -- it was an exercise in being able to argue your clients' wishes even if you don't agree. Wouldn't want that one leaking out any time soon.

Robert McCartney:

You're not the only staunch Democrat I know who doesn't see the big deal about a 20-year-old academic paper.

I would quibble on one point, though. This is not quite "what I wrote in college." First, it's what he wrote in graduate school. And he was 34, which is older than a lot of people when they write their master's theses. He'd already been an Army officer. He was a business executive, married with 2 children, and was planning to launch a political career. This paper outlined what he hoped to achieve in his political career.

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Conservatives don't like to talk about the issue, because it's a political loser, for sure: Isn't that precisely the reason that it needs to be discussed publicly?

Robert McCartney:

We're talking here about contraception:

I don't think the basic question of -- is contraception legal? -- needs a lot of public discussion. Why? Because nobody with any power is actively trying to outlaw it. Opponents know that would be a losing battle. Even the pope doesn't talk much about contraception. He focuses on abortion, where he gets more support.

What does need discussion, in my view, is whether there is sufficient education about contraception, and sufficient access to safe contraception. That issue does come up from time to time, and should be publicly discussed.

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More on contraception: Can someone please ask McDonnell whether he NOW favors the Supreme Court overturning Griswold, thus making it possible for individual states to outlaw contraceptives, even for married couples?

Robert McCartney:

McDonnell said, and we reported in our original story Sunday, that he does not believe the government should ban contraceptives.

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Can you ask McDonnell: Are women with no children allowed to work, or are we doubly evil because we're obviously using birth control?

Robert McCartney:

McDonnell has said clearly that he supports women in the workplace. He points out that he encouraged his two daughters to get master's degrees so they could be independent, and that one daughter served in combat zones in Iraq in the U.S. Army. He points out that half the senior staff on his campaign are professional women.

To the extent that he EVER opposed women in the workforce, it's that he thought that government should not adopt policies that discourage women with children from working. Instead, he said in the 1989 thesis, government policy should support the traditional family, with women at home with their children. He said government-subsidized child care was encouraging feminists and working women in a dynamic that was "detrimental" to the family.

Now, he says he always supported women in the workforce, despite that passage in the thesis. He says his attitude was evident in his support for the 1995 bill which did include government provision of child care support.

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the pope doesn't worry about contraception: Because the pill is still illegal in Italy.

Robert McCartney:

I lived in Italy for nearly five years, and contraception was widely used.

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Robert McCartney:

We've run out of time. Apologies to all the people who sent questions that I didn't get to address. Thanks to everybody.

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