Wilder, Robb make up, but it's just made-for-TV

June 20, 1991|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- When Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder and Sen. Charles S. Robb declared themselves to be delighted with each other during a made-for-television reconciliation two days ago, political scientist Larry Sabato wasn't surprised.

He had predicted as much the day before.

"You'll see them say, 'We've never had a feud,' " said Mr. Sabato, of the University of Virginia. "They'll say that it was all a staff problem, or it was all the fault of pundits and journalists."

He then added, "And anybody who believes that is a goddamned idiot."

That's because Mr. Sabato, like many longtime watchers of Virginia Democratic politics, believes that the Wilder-Robb feud runs much deeper than the most recent installment, which has been a seamy, steamy squabble over matters of sex, lies and audiotape. Mr. Sabato and others also don't expect Tuesday's smile-and-handshake session to lessen the damage the two men had already done to each other's ambitions for national office.

Mr. Wilder and Mr. Robb said Tuesday that they had never feuded at all, admitting only that once, a few years back, they "were not on the same wavelength," as Mr. Robb worded it.

But others say their acrimony, which has spilled over into political races in which neither was a candidate, goes back at least to 1980 and stems mostly from their competing desires to be the top dog among Virginia Democrats.

It was in 1980 that Mr. Wilder, then a state senator, lashed out at Mr. Robb, then the governor, accusing him of helping block the federal appointment of a black state judge. In 1982, Mr. Wilder's threat to run as an independent candidate for the U.S. Senate helped bump a Robb ally out of the race.

When Mr. Wilder was elected lieutenant governor in 1985, his staff angrily charged Mr. Robb with trying to claim credit for the victory. This was after Mr. Robb had tried to help scrounge up an alternative candidate for the Democrats.

Mr. Robb then got into some hot water on his own, when a series of newspaper articles beginning in 1987 portrayed him as a hard-partying man about town. The parties he attended, those reports said, featured cocaine use and women in varying states of undress.

When many of those reports resurfaced this April on an NBC "Expose" news show, along with the charge -- which he denied -- of an extramarital affair with Miss Virginia in 1984, Mr. Robb implied that Mr. Wilder had helped to keep the stories alive.

Not long after that, he admitted that since 1988 his office had possessed a secret tape recording of one of Mr. Wilder's private phone conversations. In a transcript of that conversation, Mr. Wilder remarked in apparent glee that the sex stories had "finished" Mr. Robb's political career.

Existence of the tape infuriated Mr. Wilder, and state and federal investigators are looking into the origin of the tape. Mr. Robb said he was just as curious about the tape's origins as anyone else, although he said he regarded it as little more than a scrap of "political gossip."

All those events led to a one-hour meeting between the men Tuesday, from which they emerged smiling and talking of a longtime friendship while TV cameras rolled. But the smiles came too late to save their reputations, especially Mr. Robb's, analysts say.

For Mr. Robb, the feud has refocused attention on old allegations he wants to forget.

"This leads him back into a snarl of girls and drugs and beauty queens, and that leaves him very sorely wounded," said Charles McDowell, longtime columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

Mr. Wilder's supporters have trouble swallowing the idea that their man was damaged as well. After all, they point out, he is the victim of the taping, not the cause.

True enough, analysts say. But what hurts is that the spat only reinforces a reputation he already had for being a political sorehead.

"Virginia has rarely had a brighter man [than Mr. Wilder], but there is no grudge-nurser in his league," Mr. McDowell said. "You would need the talent to annotate music to be able to keep up with all the struggles he has had with different people over the years."

Still, Mr. McDowell pointed out, as a black man and a grandson of slaves, Mr. Wilder probably would never have gotten where he is today without scrappy combativeness in the mostly white arena of Virginia politics. And he said Mr. Wilder may yet prove attractive to national Democrats, particularly those who hope to minimize the impact of the more liberal Jesse L. Jackson.

As for the voters of Virginia, recent polls suggest that the public spat hasn't particularly hurt the standing of either man, though a more telling indicator may be the cynical jokes that have been making the rounds.

One of the better ones going around the State House last week featured a beleaguered Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, sitting in a tent frowning as a woman from his harem berated him. "Saddam, you are the stupidest man in the world," she said. "You have lost your oil, squandered your riches and destroyed your powerful army, all because of some silly invasion."

When Mr. Hussein protested that he couldn't possibly be the stupidest person, she challenged him to ask the magic mirror in the tent next door. Mr. Hussein left to do so, only to return a few moments later with a puzzled look on his face, mumbling, "Who the heck is Chuck Robb?"

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