It has been sold out for a week. Danville tobacco farmers, coal miners from Grundy and the Democratic faithful have filled every hotel room in town. Some of the First Families of Virginia have resorted to twisting well-connected arms for tickets to the party.
Tomorrow's inauguration of Charles S. Robb as governor and the arrival of his wife, the former Lynda Byrd Johnson, as First Lady of Virginia has excited the normal reserve of this commonwealth. Even with the snowstorm that has frozen parts of the state, organizers of this weekend's gala are worried about where to put the crowd.
Part of the attraction is political. Robb will be the first Democrat to be inaugurated governor in 16 years and the first resident of the Washington suburbs to hold the office. And there is the pomp that Virginians revere. The main difference between this inauguration and others in recent memory may be what some call star quality. The Robbs have attracted some headliners to Richmond.
At the events, some of which began tonight, county clerks and precinct workers will get a chance to raise champagne toasts with actress Carol Channing, Redskins quarterback Joe Theismann and television's Phyllis George. South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, Averell Harriman and former Texas governor John Connolly will provide the national political flavor, while Lady Byrd Johnson, mother of Lynda and widow of the late president, will be a sentimental favorite.
Chuck and Lynda Robb do not seem worried about being crowded from the stage. The Robbs are perhaps the most glamorous first family the Old Dominion has known since Thomas Jefferson left office. He is dark haired and handsome, a former Marine officer who married a president's daughter and is now being asked when he plans to make her the nation's first lady. She grew up in the public eye, carried on a romance with actor George Hamilton that made gossip columnists take note, then gave him up for a White House wedding to her marine.
If most of Virginia is impressed with its new first family, the social elite of Richmond, where the Robbs will spend most of the next four years, seems somewhat aloof. In this former Capital of the Confederacy, where debutante balls and white gloved tea parties have never gone out of fashion, and Main Street money still picks up most political checks, the Robbs have been greeted somewhat warily.
"Living here could get to be be a very tough act, especially for Lynda," says one Democratic state senator who knows both the Robbs and Richmond and doesn't want to be identified to either. "The society people here aren't impressed by money and they don't think Lynda is genteel enough to be their first lady."
The Johnson family connection is both an asset and a liability for Chuck Robb. Without the name and the money that came with it, many say, Robb would not be governor. Johnson's Great Society and antipoverty programs, however, are about as popular with many Richmond power brokers as a run on a bank. While Robb has been careful to portray himself as a gray-cloth conservative, he received enough votes from blacks and liberals last fall to make Main Street nervous.
Lynda Robb has a more complicated image problem, one that may stem from the way Richmond society views the role of a governor's wife. Martha Steger, the Richmond editor of Commonwealth Magazine, believes Lynda Robb may represent a more modern, politically committed, and straightforward kind of woman than the social elite here would prefer. "I interviewed one of the oldest matrons in Richmond who told me one's name should only appear in the paper twice: when you're born, and when you die," said Steger.
A former aide to departing Gov. John N. Dalton puts it more succinctly: "Virginia is not ready for a first lady who chews gum."
Lynda Robb's supporters allow she sometimes brings trouble down on her own head. The day after the election, she and a some friends decided to lunch at W.T. O'Malley's, a brass and wood-paneled saloon that is Richmond's most notorious Republican hangout. The Republicans, who were holding an informal wake over Bloody Marys, viewed her entrance as an attempt to rub their noses in the previous night's defeat. When Robb and company tired of waiting for a table and turned to leave, many in the crowd applauded.
Nor has she been helped her by her distaste for her husband's involvement in politics. "I'd like to have him all to myself," she told the Associated Press this week. Politics, she said, "is a very jealous mistress. I don't like the separations. It is very demanding."
She also provoked some criticism with her announcement that she will not leave McLean until this school year ends for her three children. When she does move into the mansion, she will inevitably be a disappointment to some, says Trudy Norfleet, who has conducted tours of the mansion during the last three Republican administrations.
"I see people come in here expecting a spiral staircase because this is a southern mansion," says Norfleet. "In the same way they expect a certain stereotype of a Virginia first lady."