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THE RESURRECTION OF CHUCK ROBB
Unfortunately, it wasn't for the right reasons. Everybody was trying to figure out what the hell Robb was up to.
Robb's Democratic colleagues had waited while he'd strung them along and flirted with the White House. For weeks, he hadn't been able to bring himself to oppose Tower. Now it appeared that he'd finally come around. Watching peevishly was Sam Nunn, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who'd gone out on a limb to oppose Tower while Robb, his handpicked ally, was sawing off the limb. "The senator's not happy," a foreign relations committee staffer had confided.
"Mr. President," Robb intoned, his sonorous - okay, somnolent - voice pouring from a throat that was neatly bound by the tight knot of a democratically conservative tie. For the next 15 minutes Robb, looking like a groom on a wedding cake, reinforced for everyone what they already knew: that he doesn't make decisions lightly. Hey, Robb doesn't decide what socks to wear lightly. But if you'd been groomed for greatness for two decades, you wouldn't make snap judgments about taking out the trash, either.
"When I am presented with a choice between a very substantial deference that I believe is owed the president and a very firmly held conviction on the part of the chairman of the Armed Services Committee," Robb said ponderously, "I must cast my vote with my longtime friend and now colleague, the chairman of that committee."
The Democrats breathed a sigh of relief.
"He damned sure better," a senior foreign relations staffer snapped.
"Jesus, he made us beg for this," another staffer snorted.
Robb's little bit of political theater was the beginning of the end. With a furrowed brow, he earnestly droned on and on about the agony he'd gone through to make his decision, putting some spin control on his waffling. The speech set the tone for his next two unpleasant years in office.
The Garden of Gethsemane routine can work for a politician if he uses it sparingly, but for the past 15 months Robb has performed the routine regularly - on ambassadorial nominations, the clean-air bill, the flag-burning and aid-to-Cambodia amendments, and a host of minor legislation. In fact, he's trucked just about every bill more important than the Dogcatcher Day commemorative through his personal weighing station and shared his inner turmoil with his colleagues: Here's what I'd do as a chief executive, he'll say, and here's what I have to do as a - God forbid! - partisan legislator.
Robb can make the word partisan sound scarier than AIDS; Hill folk quip that senators stampede when he shouts it in a crowded committee room. The Tower vote proved to be the first of many times he'd dangle the dichotomy of his experience before the chamber. And each time was a subtle reminder that he, a former governor of Virginia, was once a chief executive and has the ability to rise above such petty matters. Even worse, he'd begin to lecture the senators on presidential prerogative and bipartisan honor. "The cardinal crime in the Senate," says a staffer on the Armed Services Committee, "is that it's okay to sound sanctimonious, but not to be sanctimonious."
Things would get worse - much worse - for the man who was once touted as the savior of the Democratic party. Everything from the tides of history to the memories of his enemies would come back to help drown his celebrated career in midstream. At least that's the way it looked from the inbred hothouse of political wisdom that is Washington.
Funny thing about inbreeding. Your eyes shift together and you begin to focus so narrowly that you can't see what else is out there.
Sure, Robb seemed dead in the Senate, but Washingtonians always forget that the Senate only counts for 100 votes. The real votes happen outside the capital, in the hinterlands, where Robb's presidential posing has been an SRO draw. We clipped his wings in Washington, insiders have said with a smile. But look, the boy from Phoenix is rising from the ashes. Thanks to provincial audiences and a handful of national crises, Robb's presidential campaign is once more taking flight.
I'VE REWRITTEN THIS STORY SEVERAL times in the past two years, schizophrenically changing direction to match Robb's changing fortunes. First there was "The Inevitability of Chuck Robb," an approach that I'd based on his obvious presidential aspirations. From there things only got better. A Democratic strategist told me to picture Robb on the happiest day of his life: the day George Bush was elected president. The Democrats are fed up with special interests and with losing, he explained, and the moderates - especially Southern, battle-tested hawks who talk tough about the economy - are in. Picture him as George Bush in Democratic bunting. The party will crawl to him on its knees, my source predicted.
Now there's a story. But then, just as quickly, the dream ended and I began to outline Robb's political obituary. During his Senate campaign he'd been tarnished by news accounts of his high-life parties in Virginia Beach, and after his performance in the Senate his stock dropped like NBW's. He lost friends over the Tower vote. He lost stature when he supported Donald Gregg's nomination to be ambassador to Korea. He was upstaged by Bob Kerrey of Nebraska, another Vietnam war vet with less baggage who could move faster. Then Doug Wilder, no fan of Robb's, was elected Virginia's governor. Suddenly Democratic celebrities were courting Wilder, and Robb was smiling painfully, like a rejected suitor. Then, as if to add insult to injury, they tore down the Berlin Wall. After all, what does a "defense" senator do when defense becomes irrelevant?