WASHINGTON -- Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles S. Robb, the warring giants of Virginia politics, met for a public cease-fire yesterday insisting that they'd never been fighting to begin with.
Smiling and deferring to one another as they stood before cameras on a Capitol Hill sidewalk, the two Democrats declared themselves the best of friends despite the recent revelation that Mr. Robb's office had for 2 1/2 years kept a clandestine tape recording of a Wilder phone conversation in 1988.
In the conversation, according to published transcripts, Mr. Wilder spoke with apparent relish of Mr. Robb being "finished" politically because of allegations of an extramarital affair and claims that he had attended parties where cocaine was used. Federal and state investigators are looking into the origin of the tape, and Virginia politicians regard the matter as the latest spat in a long-brewing feud.
But after the governor and senator met for about an hour yesterday at the Capitol, a beaming Mr. Robb announced, "We have finished a very delightful, very candid, very friendly conversation . . . We have the kind of relationship that goes back a very long time, and I think both of us think that neither of us has ever done anything to deliberately bring the other down."
Mr. Wilder, nodding in agreement, said, "In order for there to be a feud, there has to be a constant sniping and a constant pulling of triggers against each other, and that has not been the case."
Both would admit only to what Mr. Robb characterized as a single period a few years ago when he and Mr. Wilder "were not on the same wavelength."
The two returned from their meeting to face the press outside a fashionable row home where the Virginia Democratic Party was holding a reception for its $1,000-a-year contributors. Although rain dripped on both men from large trees overhead, nothing seemed to dampen their sudden enthusiasm for one another as they fielded questions.
"You will find very little grist for the mill that this is a longtime feud," Mr. Robb said.
Then what of the flap over the tape? And why would Mr. Robb's office keep the tape for so long if Mr. Wilder was such a chum?
"The senator has given his reason as to why he thinks that [the tape] was innocuous," Mr. Wilder said. "And I accept that."
As for Mr. Wilder's anger last week over the tape, Mr. Robb wasalso understanding. "If I found that someone had recorded my conversation, then I would be very upset," he said. "It would be a major irritant." He had never considered the tape anything more than a trifling item of "political gossip," he said.
The only feud, they said, is that conjured up by the imagination of an overzealous news media. Mr. Wilder said he had told youth groups earlier in the day: "For those who wanted to see us strapped down firing away like we were at the OK Corral, that was not going to happen."