Chuck Robb stepped cautiously through the doors of the Roanoke department store. It was spring of 1977, and Lyndon Johnson's son-in-law was on his first campaign swing, launching his political career by running for lieutenant governor of Virginia. But, as one aide recalls, the candidate seemed more like a customer returning a pair of socks than a high-powered political superstar.
"He didn't shake any hands, didn't introduce himself to anybody, just sort of quietly went up to someone behind the counter and asked where he could find the store manager we'd come to see," said Addison Thompson, Robb's former law school classmate who served as his finance aide.
It was the beginning of the slow and sometimes painful learning experience that has marked Charles S. Robb's four-year-long baptism as a professional politician and officeholder. Chided for his perceived fuzziness on issues, resented for the wealth and fame he married into rather than earned, derided for an inability to give concise answers to simple questions, Robb has had to overcome lingering hostility from fellow Democrats as well as the slings and arrows of rival Republicans.
"I made my peace with that a long time ago," Robb said in a recent interview. "I've learned not to worry too much about the things you can't do anything about."
On the surface it looked relatively easy for the ex-Marine Corps major and sometime lawyer who at 37 had decided to change careers for the third time. Using the fame and the fortune that were his because of the Johnson connection, Robb rode to the nomination by beating two liberal Democrats, then coasted to victory in November against a little-known Republican opponent who was too far to the right even for Virginia's conservative tastes. And as the sole Democrat elected to statewide office in 1977, Robb became the one and only heir to the party's 1981 gubernatorial nomination.
But there were problems from the start. He had no political experience. He was married to a woman who fiercely opposed his entry into politics and who at times made her opposition embarrassingly plain in public. He was running for a job that paid only $16,000 a year and was considered perhaps the weakest and least important in state government. And while the Johnson name and legacy gave him an enormous boost in name-recognition, it strapped him with potential problems with conservatives who had little use for the Great Society and with liberals and blacks who always expected a little more than Chuck Robb was willing to give.
He ran as a Democrat -- given the Johnson name, he had little choice -- but there were many, himself included, who thought that with his conservative philosophy, he might have been more comfortable as a Republican.
To this day, Robb won't say how he cast his vote in 1964, when President Johnson defeated conservative Republican Sen. Barry Goldwater.
Campaign aides went through considerable agony in 1977 hearing Robb tell some audiences that his political philosophy might be closer to the GOP than to his own party. "We knew he was LBJ's son-in-law and we thought that was all we needed to know," said his Tidewater organizer, William Hutchens, who was among many who initially figured Robb was a closet liberal running to the right in the primary simply as a practical strategy to beat two liberal opponents. "We realized there was a lot of room to the right and we were so busy trying to move him that way, we never dreamed that was where he wanted to be."
For a winning campaign, the memories of many of Robb's former aides are surprisingly bitter. It was never a smooth-running machine. Some aides concede they never really knew their man, never clearly understood his motivation or his philosophy. They felt the candidate showed no appreciation for their efforts, no gratitude when, for example, many agreed to go on half salary for a month after the primary to avoid layoffs.
"I'm a little bit guilty there," Robb acknowledged. "I'm a perfectionist and I expect perfection in others. I'm really not insensitive, but I'm not effusive in my praise. It's a valid criticism."
And those same workers recall small incidents that suggested Robb was not everything they had thought him to be.
There was the afternoon reception that spring starring Lynda and Lady Bird and organized through Thompson at the West End Richmond home of Mrs. Ivor Massey, wife of a prominent coal executive. It was considered a breakthrough event held in a wealthy white neighborhood that had become a stronghold of conservative Republicanism. But aides say Mrs. Massey objected to the guest list because it included Diane Marsh, wife of Henry Marsh, the black lawyer and city councilman who was soon to become mayor of Richmond.
"Mrs. Massey let it be known that it was fine to have Democrats over to the house but she didn't want any blacks coming in," Thompson recalled. According to Mrs. Massey, she objected to the size of the guest list -- "this is a private house, it's not a barn" -- and to some of the guests because "I didn't want any complications."
Some members of his staff erupted, suggesting Robb cancel the event, even issue a press release giving his reasons. But Robb's more conservative aides argued that the candidate needed the West End crowd more than the West End crowd needed him. Robb agreed. Mrs. Marsh's name was quietly crossed off the guest list.
Robb said he doesn't recall how the incident was resolved. "It would normally be my style not to make an issue out of it," he said. "I'm not out to change the world in that regard. I'll set my own example and conduct my own affairs in a way I'm comfortable with and I'll let others do the same."
Another matter that troubled some campaign staffers arose when Robb looked for media consultants to handle the fall campaign. He was ready to settle on the D.C. firm of Rothstein and Buckley but was disturbed that they had handled some advertising for the 1972 McGovern presidential campaign. Aides said the candidate did not want headlines in the Richmond newspapers reading "Robb Hires McGovern Crew."
Robb's solution, one aide recalled, was to suggest that Rothstein and Buckley be hired secretly, and their fee be funneled to them through another D.C. firm, Interface Video Systems, which was noted for helping produce some of Gerald Ford's 1976 spots. "But they Rothstein and Buckley just told him to stick it," the aide said. In the end, Robb hired no one and simply recut his fall spots from footage put together that spring by another firm.
Robb concedes that a deception was proposed, but said he found nothing wrong with the idea. "A suggestion was made there were ways to get around that so we wouldn't be tagged with someone else's baggage," said Robb.
Then there was Lynda. She was surprised, even hurt, when her husband told her he planned to run for office. After escaping from the political spotlight she had grown up and married under, Lynda said she had no desire to step back in. Even now, four years after she claims to have reconciled herself to her husband's political career, Lynda admits to strong reservations.
"A lot of it still bothers me," she said in a recent interview at their McLean home. "I want my privacy. That is one of the things I like least about politics. I also don't like the separations and I don't like the criticisms. I made no bones about it when Chuck told me he wanted to run for office. I was not enthusiastic." Still, Lynda said, she had little choice. "Once he told me . . . he wanted me to help him, then my only choice was to make my peace with it."
It was an uneasy peace. She gained a reputation among the campaign staff as erratic and unreliable. When excited, Lynda could show an informality and enthusiasm that fired up crowds and won votes for a candidate who himself often proved less than inspiring. But at other times, aides recalled, she could be childish, cold and aloof, adrift in her private world. She was famous at campaign headquarters for ordering a pizza, then sitting silently in a room eating it all herself, never offering to share with anyone else.
Perhaps her worst moment came on the March weekend of her 33rd birthday, a time she had hoped to celebrate at home with her husband and daughters. Instead, the decision had been made to keep to the campaign schedule and attend a large three-county Democratic dinner in Tazewell in Southwest Virginia. To make matters worse, a former aide recalled, Lynda lost a contact lens on the way.
Things went smoothly at the dinner until a birthday cake was brought out for Lynda. As the aide remembers, she burst into tears. "They lit the candles and she just sat there pouting," the aide said. "She wouldn't blow them out, she wouldn't do anything and tears were just running down her face." The master of ceremonies finally explained to the puzzled audience that "Lynda's had a rough day."
On at least two occasions when she appeared to be losing a fight to get her way on something involving politics, Lynda, according to friends, told her husband in the presence of embarrassed onlookers, "It's my money, after all."
Asked about the accounts, Lynda Robb said she can't recall ever making such a statement. "Nothing of that nature has ever come up in our relationship," Chuck Robb said yesterday, adding, "Anything said that way would have been said in jest."
The issue of Johnson money has never seemed to disturb him publicly. Indeed, while Robb listed his personal net worth at just under $1 million in a financial statement released last week, he did not include Lynda's share of the Johnson holdings. They total between $15 million and $18 million, according to former LBJ aide Jack Valenti.
Whatever his problems with Lynda, Robb proved formidable at the polls in 1977. He beat Republican state Sen. A. Joe Canada, a virtual unknown, in all but one of the state's 10 congressional districts, winning with 54 percent of the vote. He spent $640,000 in the primary and general elections -- $152,000 of which he paid off himself, using Johnson money. Meanwhile, his Democratic running mates, Henry E. Howell and Edward Lane, were wiped out in their races. The day he became Virginia's lieutenant governor, Chuck Robb had also become its highest-ranking Democratic officeholder.
It was a position with no power, no duties beyond chairing the state Senate and breaking occasional tie votes, no full-time salary, a tiny staff and only a closet-sized Richmond office. But the ambitious Chuck Robb needed a political base and he had promised to be a full-time lieutenant governor, so he took a permanent leave of absence from his Washington law firm and set out to carve a role in state government where none had existed.
One of his first official actions was to request an additional $47,000 for the lieutenant governor's annual budget -- a 70 percent increase -- which he said was needed for more staff and office expenses. Then he found a suite of offices in the historic Bell Tower, a 154-year-old Capitol Square landmark used in recent years to store groundskeeping equipment and fertilizer.
But finding an office was easier than finding a role to fill. Robb had pledged to be an ombudsman for citizens and localities with complaints about state government, a Chamber of Commerce-style booster recruiting new business to Virginia and an all-purpose mediator of disputes he thought he could resolve.
He quietly set out to do all three, displaying in the process an intense distaste for media attention. The net result was that his successes -- for example, the part he played in persuading a reluctant Nuclear Regulatory Commission to grant an operating license to the North Anna II nuclear power plant -- went unsung. His failures, most notably his inability to mediate the dispute between the Carter administration and U.S. Sen. Harry F. Byrd Jr. over the selection of the first black to be nominated for a federal judgeship in Virginia, became headlines.
Robb claims as his finest achievement in office his quiet role as informal mediator during the United Steelworkers strike against the mammoth Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. in 1979, a job action triggered by the company's refusal to recognize the union. While he does not take credit for personally ending the 10-week strike, he does contend, "I was able to communicate effectively enough with both management and labor . . . . Both sides had enough confidence in me to continue to communicate throughout that potentially very difficult situation." The result: "We were able to reduce the level of potential destruction."
But participants from both sides say Robb has seriously inflated his role, which they contend was virtually nonexistent. Bruce Thrasher, the steelworkers' district director and chief negotiator both before and during the walkout, said Robb achieved "not one solitary thing. I can't prevent people from trying to take credit, but it's just not true. After our limited discussions with him, we then proceeded to have a 10-week strike, so what did he accomplish?"
Shipyard president Edward Campbell recalls just two telephone calls from Robb -- the first a few hours before the strike began asking if Campbell would talk to union leaders, the second a few days later asking if there was anything else Robb could do to help end the dispute. Campbell said the first call had no impact because Robb was never able to get the union leaders to the phone. Nothing came of the second call.
"Chuck was attempting to have a role and Chuck handled it, in my opinion, naively," said Campbell, who is supporting Robb's opponent, Republican Attorney General J. Marshall Coleman. "Chuck was trying to be a peacemaker because he's a very honorable man, but he had no experience whatsoever in labor relations matters and therefore was really not cognizant of what had to be done . . . Regardless of what his intentions were, no good came from what he did."
Finding a political role at times proved equally difficult for Robb. Former Attorney General Andrew Miller's losing bid for the U.S. Senate the following year left Robb at the helm of a political party whose crew had been at one another's throats during a decade of continual statewide defeats. "To execute our party plan," Robb remarked sardonically in 1978, "we request a firing squad and then line up in a circle."
Many party members returned Robb's disdain. Andrews, the conservative Senate majority leader, called him "Chuckie Bird" and took undisguised delight in needling the Senate's presiding officer. Howell, the party's fallen liberal standard-bearer, first publicly challenged Robb to take progressive stands on state issues and later urged liberal Democrats to sit out the 1981 election.
Part of Howell's anger stemmed from his perception that Robb and his supporters were engaged in a systematic purge of Howell allies from leadership positions in the party. From the ouster last year of George Rawlings and Ruth Harvey Charity as Democratic National Committee members to the selection of former Portsmouth Mayor Richard J. Davis and Richmond Del. Gerald L. Baliles as running mates this year, the Robb forces pushed the party away from the liberal image they believed had turned Democrats into losers in conservative Virginia.
In each of the intraparty power struggles, Robb professed public neutrality. But in each case, Robb political aides worked aggressively for conservative candidates, sending the implicit message that they had their boss's blessing. When liberal labor lawyer Ira Lechner, a former state delegate from Arlington, appeared on the verge of an upset triumph over Davis for the lieutenant governor's nomination earlier this year, a half-dozen Robb volunteers were shipped over to Davis' headquarters in Richmond to make last-minute phone calls on Davis' behalf. Lechner supporters say Robb's chief political aide, Ben Dendy, also made dozens of telephone calls for Davis, pleading with local party leaders that a Lechner victory would be a disaster for Robb.
While Robb contends he was unaware of such activities, he does not disavow them. "You can only take so much issue with those who believe they are working in your best interest," said Robb of his aides. "In many instances, their basic political instincts are a lot smarter than mine are. So I'll let them do whatever as long as they don't misrepresent and say they're doing it on orders from me."
Dendy, 25, has worked for Robb since he first made preparations to run for office in 1976 and could be expected to play an important patronage role in a Robb administration. Despite his youth, Dendy has been a party activist for a decade and is noted for his encyclopedic knowledge of local sheriffs, revenue commissioners and other functionaries who once were the core of the Byrd Machine and still carry clout in Democratic politics.
He is also noted for playing an abrasive brand of hardball politics that has alienated many moderates and liberals over the years and which critics say doesn't jibe with Robb's claim to be a peacemaker among Democrats.
"Ben's about as arrogant a person as you'll meet in politics," said Thomas Klein, a Richmond Democrat. Former party activist William Wiley said, "With Ben you're either a friend or an enemy, and once you're an enemy, you can never be a friend." Dendy denies all that, saying he's got plenty of friends in all wings of the party.
His boss admits Dendy sometimes appears a liability but says he prizes his aide's energy and his loyalty. "There isn't anybody else who'll work 20 hours a day and will do almost anything you ask him to do," said Robb, who compared Dendy to Larry Murphy, Gov. John Dalton's loyalty-obsessed executive aide who committed suicide earlier this year after wounding his fiance. "Larry Murphy is as close to Ben Dendy as you'll find -- he was intensely loyal," said Robb, who appeared oblivious to the implications of that statement.
Besides Dendy, the man insiders say may have the most influence over the candidate is Alexandria lawyer William G. Thomas, one of the General Assembly's most effective lobbyists, whose law firm lobbies for at least a half dozen special-interest clients every year in Richmond. "Bill's the kind of person Chuck feels most comfortable with -- conservative, self-assured," said former Robb aide Muriel Murray, who once worked for Thomas. "Chuck is very comfortable with power and money and Bill has both."
His advisers and campaign workers say Robb relies mostly on himself. He ended up largely spurning advice and running his own campaign in 1977 and many expect him to do that again. And despite his image, they say Robb is capable of making quick decisions.
Perhaps the best example came earlier this year in the state Senate when Robb had a rare opportunity to break a tie on that most controversial issue -- state Medicaid funding for abortion in cases of seriously deformed fetuses. Robb had left the podium and was working in an office next to the Senate floor when, minutes before the bill came up, Senate Clerk J.T. Shropshire came back to warn him that the vote looked close.
"I told him it would probably be a tie and I sort of suggested he might want to go to the head for a while," recalls Shropshire. "But he didn't hesitate, he just said no thanks and he marched right back up to the podium."
The job that had offered so few opportunities to be anything more than a figurehead had finally, for a moment, relented; Robb cast the tie-breaking vote and the bill passed.