"Gate City is more than four hundred miles from Arlington, down the long spine of mountains that marks Virginia's western border. . . . I recognize the counties, Rockbridge, Botetourt, Franklin, and others, places where my ancestors once built log cabins and scraped corn patches out of the mud before heading farther south or west."
Jerry Kilgore didn't write these words. They're from the last book he read, "Born Fighting," a personal history by the former secretary of the Navy, James Webb, who sought to turn our eyes from the stereotype of the redneck and the hillbilly and establish the Scotch-Irish as the hard but romantic individualists who define the American character.
"It's about the heritage of fighting for what we believe," Kilgore tells me when I ask what he gleaned from the book. The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia, Kilgore -- son of a welder and a drugstore clerk, first member of his family (with twin brother Terry) to finish college -- has the twang of the remote, rural place he calls home, yet he has lived much of his adult life in the suburbs of Richmond.
In that way, he is like the state he hopes to lead -- once a collection of farmers on tractors, now a mass of SUV drivers who relish suburban comforts as they cling to the ideals of life in a more rugged time. (Kilgore drives a Chevy Tahoe SUV, and his wife, Marty, has a Jeep. "It's the space we have to have," he says without apology. Ask about conservation in a time of $3 gas and he says, "We have to look at coal.")
Kilgore is the more plainspoken candidate in this race; his campaign focuses relentlessly on his blunt, unshaded views. He's for the death penalty, no ifs or buts. For guns and against abortion, period. But if his platform is less nuanced than Democrat Tim Kaine's, Kilgore is nonetheless the more programmed candidate, rarely straying from Total Message Control on the stump.
So put the packaging aside and look at the man. Kilgore, 44, grew up in a family where politics was sport and business both. Jerry was only 7 when Richard Nixon won the White House, but he remembers that campaign, and Gerald Ford's and especially Ronald Reagan's, because "he made us feel great about ourselves." Reagan is Kilgore's favorite president, and Harry Truman is his favorite Democrat "because he was decisive. Eric Severeid was asked what was best about Truman, and he didn't talk about the Cold War or policy. He said, 'It's character, just character.' "
Kilgore's hero is no politician, but his mother's father, Emmette Bellamy, a farmer who raised cattle and grew tobacco. "He'd always say, 'You can get whatever you want by working hard.' " That's what Jerry saw next door, a man working sunup clear into night.
Jerry didn't want to farm. He loved math. He wanted to write for newspapers and did, in high school, college and law school. "I loved to write," he says. His thesis at Clinch Valley College, a branch of the University of Virginia, was about F. Scott Fitzgerald, "chronicler of his age. I'm the optimist, like Gatsby." Lesson learned: "If we said there's no hope, what does that mean? That can't be."
But as Kilgore became a prosecutor and then the state's attorney general, he focused ever more on drawing a lawyer's lines in life and ever less on flying over those lines, as a writer must. He says he rarely has time to read fiction. He can't recall the last movie he saw. (He mulls over the question for a while and then guesses it was "Batman Begins," which was "Okay.")
On the road, his XM satellite radio provides the soundtrack, and Kilgore tunes mainly to the contemporary country channels. "I like Sara Evans, Alan Jackson -- the new stuff," he says. No Hank Williams, thanks. He finds himself liking much of what's on his son Klarke's iPod -- Aerosmith, '70s rock, '70s dance music. A child of the '70s, Kilgore was a disco guy. "It was just our era," he says, just a tad sheepishly. "I like the beat of the disco."
A tennis player in college ("We're Jimmy Connors era"), Kilgore runs three or four miles every morning and comfortably gets by on six hours of sleep a night. In a state with no pro sports teams, Kilgore grew up a Los Angeles Dodgers fan, like his dad. As for the Nationals, "well, they're not in Virginia."
Should they have been? I ask. And we're back to politics, and the answers get shorter, more rehearsed, and suddenly Kilgore seems less intriguing.
Thursday: The real Tim Kaine