With their three-piece suits, collegiate haircuts and squeaky clean smiles, the two young candidates for governor of Virginia are hard to tell apart, and their conservative platforms seem almost identical. So when election time rolls around next month, many Virginians may vote for their favorite First Lady. Nancy Reagan attended a Richmond fund raiser that poured $300,000 into the coffers of Republican hopeful J. Marshall Coleman, while Lady Bird Johnson has pitched in for Democrat Chuck Robb, her son-in-law. Says a grateful Lynda Bird Robb: “Mother makes it possible for Chuck and me to do what we have to do.”
In staunchly conservative Virginia the Johnson connection is a mixed blessing for Robb. His White House wedding catapulted him onto the national stage, but to many of his constituents, LBJ’s Great Society was one of the most revolting developments since Appomattox. “Anybody who is kin to Lyndon Johnson I don’t have much respect for,” grumbles Earl Taylor, a courthouse politician in rural Halifax County. Although Robb’s views on government spending smack more of Reagan than of Johnson, Coleman finds ample opportunity to remind voters of the social welfare programs that Robb’s father-in-law initiated.
The family issue, however, is a two-edged sword. Because their political differences boil down to nuance rather than substance, Robb, 42, and Coleman, 39, have waged a peculiarly personal campaign. The Robbs—parents, children and grandmother Lady Bird—have been notably conspicuous as a family, reflecting perhaps unintentionally on Coleman’s own fragmented household. Five years ago, shortly after a successful bid for the state senate that featured a happy family snapshot in his campaign brochure, Coleman was divorced from Maureen, his wife of 12 years and mother of his two sons. Within the year he wed artist Niki Fox, herself a divorcee with two children. “Niki was Marshall’s great passion,” says state Sen. Ray Garland. “He didn’t care about price or what he might lose. He was deeply in love.”
Raised in once solidly Democratic Augusta County, Coleman became a Rockefeller Republican at the University of Virginia, and shattered tradition by becoming the first nonfraternity man to win election to the student council. The following year he became its president. After graduating 21st in a class of 458 in 1964, Coleman married Maureen Kelly, his college sweetheart, and went on to attend the University of Virginia law school. Two years later he joined the Marines and served 13 months in Vietnam. Earning his law degree after his discharge, he joined a firm in his hometown of Staunton, and in 1972 served as a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Three years later he was elected to the state senate, where some of his colleagues came to resent him. “How could they help it?” asks his friend Garland. “He was going somewhere, and they weren’t.” Regarded by some as a rank opportunist, Coleman was a maverick Republican, who refused to follow the party line. Obviously the voters approved, for in 1977 Coleman was elected the state’s first Republican Attorney General in this century. When asked to distinguish himself from his rival, Coleman proudly points to his experience. “I’ve had preparation for the job,” he says. “I’ve been called on to make thousands and thousands of decisions for Virginians.”
Robb, who was born in Phoenix, nonetheless boasts Virginia ancestors dating back to the early days of the colony. After his father’s dude ranch failed, the family returned to the state, where Robb attended Mount Vernon High School. At the University of Wisconsin he became active in liberal campus politics, but lost in his bid to become senior class president. “That was a good experience for me,” he reflects now. “I needed a little taking down.” Rarely has he been taken down since. Robb joined the Marines after earning a business degree, and finished first in his basic-training class of 400. Following an impressive performance as a junior officer, he was assigned to the White House and drafted as an escort for Lynda Bird, who was just ending a celebrated romance with actor George Hamilton. Both were avid bridge players, and their frequent card-table foursomes soon led to a more serious twosome. They were married in the White House in 1967.
After earning a Bronze Star in Vietnam, Robb returned to Lynda—but not, as his father-in-law wished, to Texas. Politely refusing LBJ’s offer of a grand home in Austin, Robb enrolled at the University of Virginia law school. “He’s an independent bastard,” Johnson growled. Lady Bird puts it more genteelly. “Chuck has always been very much his own man,” she says. He ran a conservative campaign for Virginia lieutenant governor in 1977, and won an upset victory. “I see him as caring and intensely pragmatic,” says Lady Bird. “Lyndon was for optimism and belief in the capability of this country. Chuck is naturally more conservative, and the times are more conservative.”
Chuck and Lynda live with their daughters Lucinda, 13, Catherine, 11, and Jennifer, 3, in exclusive McLean, just outside Washington. Although initially disappointed by her husband’s decision to enter politics, Lynda Bird has gamely gone along, campaigning vigorously throughout the state. “She’s learning and growing,” says her mother. “I would like to think I am bolstering Lynda. There is a feeling among children in political families that they get the short end of it. Lynda Bird is subject to feelings of guilt, because she lived through it as a child herself. If I’m there, I can take one burden off her back and she can give herself more wholeheartedly to helping Chuck.” Both Robbs are grateful for Lady Bird’s help, and the odds are that this isn’t the last time they’ll be needing it. For whichever candidate wins this hotly contested race, both will be heard from in elections to come.