RIGHT BEFORE THE presidential election last November, Jimmy Carter was asked yet another question about his religious beliefs. We were in the Plains Baptist Church at the time and Carter had been talking religion with reporters when he was asked whether he believed in the literal Bible - the Bible of miracles and the sun going around the earth and Eve springing from the rib of Adam. He said more or less that he did not. Then the next day he said more or less that he did.
There were a lot of interpretations of what had happened. Some thought maybe Carter had misunderstood the question and some thought maybe we had misunderstood the answer and some thought that maybe things had gone wrong in the way Carter's remarks were written up in the newspapers the next day.The point, though, is that for a time I thought Carter might be trying to have it both ways - telling one side what it wanted to hear, the, other side what it wanted to hear, and winking at both. That way, you get the impression that your man is really your man. He is fooling the other guys.
This sort of winking is a pretty common tactic in politics and I bring it up now because some people think that is what Chuck Robb is doing in his campaign for lieutenant governor of Virginia. What Robb is being accused of is being all things to all people - a conservative to the conservatives, a liberal to the liberals and an enigma to those who try to figure out where he really stands. The problem with Robb is not what he's been saying, but who he's been associating with.
Well, you hear that sort of thing whenever you have an election and in the Democratic Party you heard it whenever a candidate had breakfast with George Wallace and lunch with Dick Daley and maybe dinner on the veranda of James Eastland's plantation in Sunflower County, Miss. After a while, the issue becomes something of a bore. You know in your heart that it takes more than dinner to corrupt a man.
So this, I have to tell you, is how I greeted the news that Robb was doing business on both ends of the Virginia Democratic Party. I mean, the point was that I thought that this was nothing more than the old look-who-he-had-breakfast-with refrain. After all, we all know something about Chuck Robb. He's the late President Johnson's son-in-law and his wife, and that family, the Johnson family, stands for some things - liberalism on social issues, for instance. Robb himself has not backed off on that. He has told his conservative supporters to their face that he is what he is - conservative on fiscal issues, liberal on social issues. The stand has earned him conservative backers and liberal contributors and maybe the other way around as well.
But still this is Virginia and there is some history here. Among the people in the Robb camp are leaders of the old Byrd organization, which, not to put too fine a point on it, is not the most progressive element in Virginia politics. In particular, Robb has the support of former Gov. William M. Tuck, a leader of the massive resistance movement of the 1950s, and Watkins M. Abbitt, a former member of the House and one of Virginia's foremost bitter-enders. It was Abbitt who in 1973 referred to a Henry Howell contributor as a "liberal, left-wing, millionaire Jew."
It's a long way, though, from having accepted the support of people like Tuck and Abbitt to soliciting their help and welcoming them into your campaign with open arms. The former is rather passive and, besides, we are talking about politics, and endeavor where almost no one turns down anyone's help. The latter, though, is a different story, for what you do there is acknowledge that these me nare important, that you need their help. You enhance their standing, or at the very least, you do nothing to diminish it. The fact of the matter is that Abbitt says Robb solicited his support.
I've seen him several times," Abbitt said. "I would reckon you would call it that. He's called and asked for suggestions. I don't want to embarrass him, but I reckon you would call it soliciting my support."
The thing about Robb, of course, is that we have little with which to judge the man. He has never held elective office, never cast a vote on the floor of any legislative body. He has no record - just his word that his intentions are good. What he is is the lawyer who married the daughter of a President. That should not be held against him, but it's not the same as taking a position, either.
Still, this is a tricky matter and this is politics and a man has to take his support where he can find it. I know that, but I think, too, there had to be a place where you draw the line - where you say by actions that you stand for something besides winning. So I went up to a television studio recently, to ask Robb what he thought about this. I don't know what I expected, but I expected some signal that this was a marriage of convenience - not a wink.
We talked on the lawn outside the television studio and he gave the question a long answer. What Robb said after a time was that the Democratic Party was an inclusive party and not an exclusive party."I don't reject the support of anyone," he said.
He didn't wink.