Lyndon Johnson took his oldest daughter and son-in-law on a trip through the streets of Austin one day 10 years ago, his white Lincoln finally coming to a stop in the middle of the city's finest residential neighborhood. The former president bounded from the car, Lynda and Charles S. Robb in tow.
"Lookey here," bellowed the patriarch of the LBJ clan, waving his arm in an arc wide enough to encompass a Texas sunset. "It's all yours."
Before them stood a new four-bedroom house, a surprise gift that one associate said Johnson had "practically built himself" to corral the only members of the family who were not within a speeding car ride of his retirement ranch along the Pedernales River. Certainly this last grand gesture would compel the Robbs to leave Virginia and move down there with all the others, with daughter Luci and her husband Pat Nugent and all sorts of former White House staffers.
Chuck Robb, politely but firmly, informed his father-in-law that it would not. "Sir, no thank you, sir," said the former Marine and law student to one of the most persuasive politicians of modern times. Later, back at the ranch, LBJ told his neighbor Harold Woods of Robb's unthinkable decision. In a tone of both anger and admiration, he said of his son-in-law: "He's an independent bastard."
Today, as Virginia's lieutenant governor and the Democratic nominee for governor, Chuck Robb is still emerging from the LBJ shadow.
He owes much to the magic of the Johnson name. It gave him a place among America's political royalty and propelled him four years ago into the state's second highest elected office without a day's worth of government experience. It was Johnson money that made him a millionaire, helped finance his 1977 campaign, and built his McLean mansion.
But just as Robb rejected Lyndon Johnson's house, he has spurned much of the legacy. An unabashed political conservative, he has embraced Ronald Reagan's dismantling of LBJ's beloved social programs. Cautious, unemotional and calculating, he has little taste for the flamboyant, backroom wheeling and dealing and political risk-taking at which his father-in-law excelled. And while Lyndon Johnson wore his heart and his hatreds -- even his surgical scars -- in public, Chuck Robb keeps his well hidden. People may have loved or hated Johnson, but most thought they knew him.
Very few people claim to know Chuck Robb.
Not his father, James E. Robb, who recalled that "from the beginning, Charles was very private," nor his mother, Frances, who believes "Charles pulled into a shell" as an adolescent.
Not his wife, Lynda Bird, who had hoped the handsome, spit-and-polish Marine she married would take her out of the spotlight. Nor her mother, Lady Bird Johnson, who thought Robb had planned on a Marine Corps career and said she was "bowled over" when he left the service for law and then gave that up for politics.
Robb's own psychoanalysis is quite simple: "It's not a conscious shield," he explained recently. "I just try not to let my guard down."
But perhaps nothing can shield the insights of one's siblings. Robb's younger brother and sister are the only people who say that his actions have never surprised them. "I wasn't surprised at all when Charley went into politics," said his sister Trenny. "He was always number one at this and that and he always set heavy goals."
And his brother David was the first to link the courtship of Lynda with his quietly intense ambition. "When I first got the word that he had made inroads in her social circle, I said,'He'll marry her'," recalled David. He insisted his brother truly loved Lynda, but added: "I knew he'd go after her because she was the big catch, for political reasons, for financial reasons, for status reasons . . . . Marrying the president's daughter was big on the resume." The Little Treasurer
Charles Spittal Robb was born on June 26, 1939, in Phoenix, Ariz. That is a statistic which his political detractors in Virginia like to emphasize, claiming that no one born in Arizona could be a true Virginian. But Robb dismisses such talk with a rare quip. "I was born there," he says, "because I wanted to be near my mother." And in truth, he has solid credentials for seeking political office in Virginia, being able to trace his roots deep enough to satisfy anyone concerned with FFVs (First Families of Virginia.)
Robb was born in the arid Southwest because of a quality in his father that apparently was not transmitted to the firstborn son -- a gambling spirit. Jim Robb worked most of his adult life for airlines, but in the anyone-can-make-a-millon fervor of post World War II, he abandoned the security of that line of work for a fling as an operator of a dude ranch. That dream lasted a few years, and suffice it to say that Jim Robb did not make a million at the dude ranch. "I broke my pick -- we lost everything," he recalled, and by 1949 he was heading east.
Frances Robb, recovering from a cataract operation, remained behind in Arizona with the two younger children, David and daughter Marguerite Trenholm (Trenny), while Jim set off for Cleveland, and the prospect of an airline job, with the elder boys. To entertain Charles, 11, and Robert Wickliffe, 8, during the long trip, the father named Wick navigator. Charles, "who always managed to hang on to his money," served as treasurer.
And what a stickler of a treasurer he was. When they stopped for their first meal, the father bought two of his favorite Sante Fe cigars. Back in the car, young Charles pulled out his dimestore ledger book and recorded the cost of the meal. Jim Robb will never forget what happened next: "As I lit up a Sante Fe, which cost two-for-a-quarter, Charles looked at me and said, 'Dad, do you suppose you could smoke something that cost only 10 cents each?'"
The Robbs stayed in Ohio for six years. The father worked several jobs, sometimes two at once, until he finally hooked up again with the airlines. "It must have been traumatic for them his parents ," Chuck Robb says now, "because they both came from fairly prominent, fairly wealthy families. But we were never deprived. I had a pretty standard middle-class existence."
Eventually, Jim Robb was transferred to Washington, and the family settled in the Wellington Villa subdivison of Fairfax County, south of Alexandria. Chuck attended 11th and 12th grades at Mount Vernon High School.
Classmate Edith Petersilia Mayo remembers him as "shy and quiet," certainly not the one most likely to become a politician. He was, according to the 1957 yearbook, a member of the golf, basketball and track teams, National Honor Society and Key Club, and president of his church's youth fellowship. His scholastic performance, while not tops in the class, was good enough for him to get an academic-athletic scholarship at Cornell. There he studied engineering and was required to join a Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) unit. He selected the Navy, he now says, "because it was competitive -- the Air Force and Army took anybody."
At the end of his freshman year at Cornell, Robb lost his scholarship. His grades were too low. So, his family having moved again, this time to Milwaukee, he transfered to the University of Wisconsin's main campus in Madison.
Suddenly, Robb found himself "a square on a campus that was a little radical." One of the political activists on campus, Ed Garvey, now executive director of the National Football League Players Association, remembers Robb as "a popular, nonideological type" whose political interests didn't extend beyond Greek activites. Robb acknowledges as much. He recalls thinking it was "absurd that the students were spending so much time talking about the House Un-American Activities Committee" instead of the "nuts and bolts" concerns of preparing for careers. With fraternity backing, Robb was elected to the student senate. Garvey's Badger party, the more liberal of the two student factions, soon asked Robb to run for president of the senior class, an office that was largely honorary. Only one Badger party candidate lost that year -- Chuck Robb.
"That was a good experience for me," Robb said in retrospect. "I needed a little taking down. Anybody who goes too long without some setback in life tends to lose an important perspective."
He graduated on June 5, 1961, with a bachelor of business administration degree, compiling a C+ (2.56) average for his three years at Wisconsin. The transcript he sent to the Marines showed that average grades in business were bolstered by A's in military courses such as "Evolution of the Art of War" and "Amphibious Warfare." And, in a harbinger of his future style on the stump, he recorded a B in public speaking. The Social Aide
After graduating from Wisconsin, where he was the top student in NROTC, 2nd Lt. Robb took his 20-week basic training at Quantico, where again he was the top man among 400 new officers. His first assignment was aboard the USS Northampton, the presidential command ship. His commanding officer during his first six months at sea, Capt. J. B. Noble, wrote on the evaluation report that Robb "possesses more potential than any other junior officer I have observed in the Marine Corps."
Robb's next assignment was as a company commander at Camp Lejuene, N.C., where he soon found the next in the impressive line of senior sponsors during his nine-year career as a marine, Maj. Gen. William J. VanRyzin. As VanRyzin moved up, to commander of all Marines on the East Coast, so did his jut-jawed aide-de-camp, to that most-sought after destination for young officers, the Marine Barracks in Southeast Washington. By June 1966, 1st Lt. Robb had been tapped for the extra duty as a social aide at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. It was at that address that he met his future wife.
She was 23, shy, gangly, unsure of herself. Childhood and adolescence, which are awkward and strained under the best of circumstances, had been particularly so for her and her younger sister because their father was one of the country's most famous politicians. Lyndon Johnson was a loving father when he was at home, but often he was not and the absences were resented.
Often, during the campaign years, the girls would spend the first half of the school year in Texas, the second half in Washington. "I had the most schizophrenic childhood," Lynda Bird Robb remembered. "Luci says openly there are times when she really resented my parents, really hated it. Somehow, we were able to make it work but it's not because there were no trials."
Even though they had spent most of their adolescence in the public eye, nothing had prepared Lynda Bird and Luci Baines for the publicity that fell on them when their father was catapulted into the presidency upon the assassination of President Kennedy. At an age when many young women were generally expected to be marrying and having children, the fishbowl existence of living in the White House made privacy and any kind of social life extraordinarily difficult.
"You'd go out with some people and you never knew whether they were interested in you or whether they thought it'd be a lark to go out with the Secret Service," recalled Lynda.
Both Lynda and her popular, outgoing younger sister say their behavior was influenced by a remark their father made while discussing the perils of growing up in the spotlight. "Daddy said, 'I'm not worried about my daughters,' " Luci remembered. "He said, 'Lynda Bird is bright enough and determined enough to get out and make a living for herself, and Luci is pretty enough and charming enough get a man to make it for her.' And for a long time we believed that."
"Daddy was trying to pay us a compliment," said Lynda. "But he didn't see the flip side of it. I began to think, 'Gosh, I'm not very pretty,' and Luci began to think she was not very smart."
Lynda often ended up dating the military aides who served her father. They were available -- and safe. The one exception was her highly publicized friendship with actor George Hamilton. Luci said she will always be grateful to Hamilton "for coming into Lynda Bird's life and convincing her that she was pretty."
Lynda was still dating Hamilton when Chuck Robb came to the White House. No one recalls exactly when Chuck and Lynda began dating, but by early 1967, the handsome Marine captain had become part of a regular foursome around the bridge table in the third-floor solarium, along with another Marine social aide, Douglas Davidson, Lynda, and her house guest from the University of Texas, Warrie Lynn Smith.
Soon the two couples were going on dates outside the White House. Davidson remembers dinners at the Cantina d'Italia, an occasional movie, although more often they watched them for free in the little theater at the White House, and the Friday night review at the barracks, after which dates traditionally were invited to parties at Center House, the bachelor officer quarters where Robb and Davidson lived.
Lady Bird Johnson said she learned about the seriousness of the relationship "one night when Lynda tiptoed into our room after a date. Lyndon was asleep, and sleep was a precious thing to him, so I tried to shoo her away, but she kept on advancing, saying she just had to talk. She was floating on a cloud, whispering that she thought she and Chuck were going to be engaged. We already liked everything we knew about him, which wasn't a great deal, but we liked him being a Marine. Naturally, her father woke up and we talked about it for a long while." The Wedding
The Robb-Johnson wedding was the first of a presidential daughter in the White House in 50 years and Liz Carpenter, who was Mrs. Johnson's press secretary, recalls that nothing was too trivial to warrant a story. When someone asked how many raisins would be in the wedding cake, Carpenter responded by putting the correct amount in a jar and holding a contest among the reporters. The winning number, which she remembers to this day: 1,511.
Three days before the wedding, Robb conducted a press conference at the Marine Barracks attended by more than 100 reporters -- more than he has ever been able to attract as a public official. He fielded questions about Vietnam, Hamilton, Lynda's cooking, working wives, Marine wives and, in Carpenter's opinion, "won the battle hands down. He was smooth, genuine, unfailingly polite, and with his 'yes ma'm, no ma'm,' responses, exhibited a duty officer's decisiveness."
On the day of the wedding, Dec. 9, 1967, a number of precautions were taken to assure the privacy of their honeymoon site. Bess Abell, the White House social secretary, helped spirit the bride and bridegroom out of the White House via a tunnel that leads to the Treasury Building. And Carpenter announced that the happy couple was going to Honolulu, while in fact they flew to San Juan, and then to St. Johns in the Virgin Islands.
While the newlyweds temporarily escaped the glare of publicity, Robb's brothers and sister, who are "absolutely different and distinct," according to their mother, were not so successful with their brush with fame.
Trenny, a pretty high school senior who became a favorite of White House photographers, was flooded with offers to work as a model. She accepted one and moved to New York City. But she discovered "they were only interested in me because of my name," and, disillusioned, she moved to Vermont. Now 33, she lives on a farm where, until her recent separation, she and her husband carved and painted pipes, a profitable venture that earned her notoriety in a national magazine as the manufacturer of drug paraphernalia.
David, 36, is a happy-go-lucky bachelor in his 19th year as an undergraduate at the University of Wisconsin. "He has supported himself as a bartender, house painter, women's dormitory supervisor ("a job he loved," joked his mother), professional bridge player and three-time unsuccessful candidate for mayor of Madison. It is Trenny's theory that David, who she said is "just as smart and athletic and talented as Chuck," deliberately rejected the trappings of success to avoid comparisons with Chuck.
The least affected, according to their parents, was Wick, 38, who was in the Navy then, and has since retired after 20 years of service. He lives in Alta Loma, Calif., where he is an engineer for General Electric. War and Politics
Two months after the wedding, Capt. Robb, son-in-law of the president, was shipped off to Vietnam, silencing suggestions that he might use his newfound influence to avoid serving there. Robb was most eager to carry out his patriotic duty.
George Christian, who was LBJ's press secretary, said Johnson never developed the "warm, buddy-buddy relationship" with Robb that he had with Luci's husband, Pat Nugent, whose first son had helped make Nugent a part of the immediate family. But Johnson gloried in the letters he got from a son-in-law writing of the unpopular war, Christian said. "The president was proud as hell of Chuck. He used to imitate him -- he'd throw his shoulders back and say something about 'my tough Marine son-in-law.' " Christian recalled.
Robb's first job in Vietnam was as commander of Company "I" of the 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines. After just two weeks, he led his outfit on a combat mission during which his men captured 350 Viet Cong suspects. Robb received the Bronze Star for that.
Some of the letters that Robb wrote to the president during that time were uncovered by Lynda during a recent visit to the LBJ Library in Austin. "She read a bunch of them aloud to me," Mrs. Johnson said during an interview at the library, "but I'm not sure the best of them survived. Lyndon was in the habit of putting them in his pocket and reading them to the Tuesday luncheons of the Joint Chiefs."
Lynda and her mother also played some of the tape recordings that Chuck and Lynda exchanged at that time. Lady Bird recalled one in which "Chuck described his headquarters being hit just before he walked in. One or two of his men died in his arms. It was just sheer chance, very fortunate, that he was out when the attack came. He said it makes you realize that you don't control your life."
Robb returned to the states as a major, after more than a year in Vietnam (April 4, 1968, to April 22, 1969), and volunteered, as his final active-duty assignment, to recruit new marines, a task that included speaking on college campuses. He never intended to make the military a career, but felt a duty not to leave as soon as he came back because, as he now explains, "I was a role model."
In his campus appearances, Robb realized that many students would view him as "the epitome of everything they hated -- dress blues, scrambled eggs decorations on my hat, ribbons. Yet never once did I walk out not having been able to establish a dialogue and have a certain measure of respect."
Robb defended American tactics then and now. "We could have engaged in a scorched earth policy. On many occasions, I had men killed or wounded who wouldn't have been if we had simply gone in with air strikes on essentially defenseless villages who were harboring Viet Cong. We didn't do that, and in that sense it was a compassionate policy, although there wasn't much appreciation of that in the antiwar movement."
He recalls being greeted with hisses and boos when he walked onto the stage at LaSalle College in Philadelphia. "But I got them to laugh two or three times, and established a dialogue. When I left that auditorium, I got a standing ovation." He said then-President Richard Nixon sent him a note afterward, congratulating him for the way he handled it.
It was as a result of his experiences talking to antagonistic college students that Robb began to think about politics. He said he got a visceral feeling that he could "bring people together and develop a sense of personal respect and communications." And that talent, he said, is "one of the things I do best in the political process."