Early Life and Career
Charles Spittal Robb was born on June 26, 1939, in Phoenix, Arizona, but grew up in Alexandria, Virginia. He graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1961 and joined the U.S. Marine Corps, graduating with honors from the Marine training school in Quantico, Virginia. That led to an assignment as a social aide at the White House, where he met and later married Lynda Bird Johnson, the daughter of then-president Lyndon Johnson. The couple married at the White House on December 9, 1967. Robb went on to serve two tours of combat duty during the Vietnam War (1961–1975), where he commanded a rifle company and won a Bronze Star. He left the Marines in 1970 and entered the University of Virginia School of Law in Charlottesville. He clerked for a federal judge and went on to work in private practice in Northern Virginia.
In the mid-1970s, Virginia Democrats were in a state of political freefall. Both the Republicans and Democrats were realigning following the end of the Byrd Organization that had dominated the state since early in the twentieth century. Many conservatives were leaving the Democratic Party to become either Independents or Republicans. The remaining Democrats found themselves torn between liberals who identified more with their national counterparts, and moderates who felt the only way to win in right-of-center Virginia was to distance themselves from the national party. Democratic in-fighting, and their own growing numbers, buoyed Republicans. The Republican Party seemed on its way to becoming the state’s dominant political entity after it won the governorship in 1969 (Linwood Holton) and in 1973 (Mills Godwin).
Amid this political tumult Robb appeared on the scene in 1977 as a candidate for lieutenant governor. He emphasized his Marine service and positioned himself as a political centrist, which appealed to moderates and the conservatives who had remained in the Democratic fold. His connections to the Johnson administration re-assured some liberals and especially African American voters, who credited the Johnson administration with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Opponents called him a “carpetbagger” with no experience, but Robb breezed to victory in a three-way Democratic primary.
The 1977 Democratic primary perfectly illustrated a party in transition, producing a ticket of three candidates with little in common: the liberal Henry E. Howell, Jr. for governor, the moderate Robb for lieutenant governor, and the conservative Ed Lane for attorney general. Democrats tried to celebrate the odd pairing by billing theirs as a “rainbow” ticket, even producing buttons with a rainbow logo. On election day, however, only Robb won, trouncing Republican state senator Joe Canada by 54 percent to 46 percent. With his election, Robb became the only Democrat holding statewide office, making him immediately the party’s highest-ranking leader and the obvious candidate for governor in 1981.
The 1981 campaign for Virginia governor pitted Robb against Marshall Coleman, the Republican attorney general. It also ushered in a new generation of leadership. Both men were young—Robb was in his early forties, Coleman in his late thirties. Both were also former Marines who had seen combat in Vietnam. And both had reputations as political moderates, which made for fascinating politics as both men jockeyed for support. Robb’s personality—often seen as “stiff” or “stolid” or “ramrod straight”—proved reassuring to many members of the business community, who were put off by Coleman’s more mercurial style. Robb not only won—with 53.5 percent of the vote to Coleman’s 46.4 percent—he led a Democratic sweep of lieutenant governor and attorney general, as well.
Robb promised a cautious, if somewhat progressive administration. He dedicated more money for education than his predecessor, but did not raise taxes. On the one hand, he appointed a record number of women and minorities to state offices. When a seat on the state Supreme Court became vacant, Robb seized the opportunity to appoint John Charles Thomas, the state’s first African American justice. On the other hand, Robb also oversaw the imposition of the death penalty, the first time in twenty years that Virginia had executed a prisoner. Prisons became a surprise focus of his administration. In 1984, six death row prisoners overpowered guards and escaped. They were eventually recaptured, but it took weeks before all were tracked down. Despite the embarrassment, Robb avoided blame and won high marks for his managing of the situation.
Robb also stepped onto the national stage, attempting to nudge the national party toward the center. He helped create the first “Super Tuesday” presidential primary, designed to give more clout to southern states and presumably produce a more moderate nominee. In the aftermath of Walter Mondale’s landslide defeat in the 1984 presidential campaign, Robb helped found the Democratic Leadership Council, a group of moderates who sought a greater voice in party affairs. Many political commentators pegged him as a future candidate for president or vice president.
Robb always scored high in approval polls with Virginia voters. Although Virginia governors are not allowed to seek reelection, the ultimate verdict on Robb’s administration may have come in 1985. For the second time in two elections, Virginia voted for a Democratic sweep, electing Gerald J. Baliles as governor, along with the first African American, L. Douglas Wilder, as lieutenant governor, and the first woman to win statewide office, Mary Sue Terry, as attorney general. It became fashionable for commentators to say that Robb had made it “respectable” to be a Virginia Democrat again.
Senate Election and Scandals
In 1987, U.S. senator Paul Trible, a Republican, stunned the state by announcing his retirement after just one term. Trible said he wanted to spend more time with his family, but many thought he wanted to avoid a bruising campaign against Robb, who was widely assumed to be preparing to run the following year. Republicans struggled to find a candidate willing to take on the popular former governor, finally settling on the little-known Maurice Dawkins. Robb won a whopping 71 percent of the vote in what otherwise was not a particularly good year for Democrats. Given his success in Virginia at a time when Democrats were faring poorly across the South, Robb was mentioned as a potential U.S. presidential candidate. This was to prove the high point of Robb’s career.
Three related scandals soon ensnared Robb. The trouble began in 1988 with reports that, while governor, he had socialized at parties in Virginia Beach where cocaine and prostitutes were present. At first, the reports gained little traction because they were entirely at odds with Robb’s public persona as a straight-arrow Marine. But as a federal investigation into drug use in Virginia Beach widened, Robb faced increasingly uncomfortable questions about his behavior. Robb denied any involvement, even famously saying he had no idea what cocaine looked like. Robb’s admission that he instructed his state police security detail to stay away from the parties, however, raised questions about his activities.
In April 1991, Robb’s troubles deepened when a former beauty queen—Tai Collins, Miss Virginia USA in 1983—claimed she had once had an affair with him while he was governor. Robb denied the affair, but admitted he had received a nude massage in a New York City hotel room.
To make matters worse, Robb found himself embroiled in a feud with the newly elected lieutenant governor. Doug Wilder claimed that Robb had not sufficiently helped his campaign; Robb accused Wilder of not giving enough credit to the role his administration played in paving the way for Wilder’s election. One day, an amateur radio buff picked up a cell phone conversation in which Wilder could be heard joking about Robb’s trouble. An audiotape of the conversation found its way into the hands of some members of Robb’s staff. Hoping to divert public attention away from the Virginia Beach situation, Robb’s staffers leaked the tape to the press as a way to show that Wilder was trying to capitalize on Robb’s troubles.
The move backfired. The tape was illegal, and three staff members were indicted and eventually pleaded guilty to federal charges. A federal grand jury investigated Robb himself, exploring the question of whether he knew about the illegal taping and approved the leak. Robb took the unusual—and legally risky—step of testifying before the grand jury. In January 1993, after eighteen months of investigation, the grand jury decided against indicting Robb. But his once-bright star had been tarnished, perhaps beyond repair.
As a result of the scandals, Robb was vulnerable in his bid for reelection in 1994. But when Oliver North, the former aide to U.S. president Ronald Reagan, emerged as his Republican opponent, the race became complicated for Republicans. North was at the center of the Iran-Contra arms-for-hostages scandal, and his campaign so polarized the party that U.S. senator John Warner, a Virginia Republican, denounced North and instead orchestrated an independent bid by Marshall Coleman, the former attorney general whom Robb had defeated in 1981. North led most of the campaign, while Democrats complained that Robb made few efforts to defend himself and stayed in Washington, D.C. In the final week, though, Robb hit the campaign trail for a frenzied push that saw him finally pull ahead in the polls. He won with a narrow plurality. For the first time, Robb polled less than a majority of the vote, taking just under 46 percent to North’s 43 percent and Coleman’s 11 percent. Analysts agreed that Coleman’s independent bid helped pull enough votes from moderate Republicans, who could neither stomach North nor were prepared to vote for a Democrat, to insure Robb’s victory.
Politics in the Senate
During his two terms in the Senate, Robb preferred to work behind the scenes. He concentrated mostly on national security and budget matters. He became the only senator to ever serve simultaneously on all three national security committees: Armed Services, Intelligence, and Foreign Relations.
He was routinely ranked as one of the more centrist members, usually voting more often with liberals on social issues and more often with conservatives on fiscal and national security matters. He was one of only ten Democratic senators to vote in favor of using force to expel Iraqi forces from Kuwait in 1991. He also was one of only eleven Democrats to vote to confirm Clarence Thomas as a justice on the U.S. Supreme Court. Senator John Warner called Robb a “bridge builder.” Robb’s emphasis on fiscal restraint, however, led fellow Democrats to remove him from the Budget Committee.
Nevertheless, Robb voted for the ban on assault weapons, opposed a constitutional amendment to outlaw flag burning, backed U.S. president Bill Clinton’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy on gays serving in the military, and voted against the Defense of Marriage Act. His high-profile support of such liberal measures—along with his weakened political condition from the various scandals—once again made Robb’s reelection a target for Republicans in 2000. This time, Republicans nominated former Virginia governor George F. Allen. Robb ran an uninspired campaign and lost. Allen took 52 percent of the vote to Robb’s 48 percent. He later told the Washington Post: “I got tired. My heart wasn’t in it anymore.”
Out of office, Robb devoted his time to teaching and occasional service on foreign policy panels. He co-chaired the Iraqi Intelligence Commission, an independent panel that investigated American intelligence leading up to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003. He also served on the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel appointed by the U.S. Congress to recommend policy in Iraq. The panel advised in December 2006 that the American troop presence be reduced; U.S. president George W. Bush ignored the report and instead ordered a “surge” of troops to Iraq. The New York Times reported that during the group’s visit to Baghdad, Iraq, Robb was the only member to venture outside the so-called “Green Zone” of American security.
Residing in McLean, Robb joined the faculty of George Mason University in Fairfax as a distinguished professor of law and public policy in 2001.