The once lopsided Virginia gubernatorial race has suddenly gotten a lot more interesting with the revelations surrounding Republican front-runner Robert McDonnell's reactionary 1989 master's thesis. As it turns out, it's not just Democrats clamoring that McDonnell "can't shrug it off as misguided youth"; many of his long-time Republican allies claim the 34 year author of the Regent University rant against working women and "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators" is the same man they support today. But with a still-solid lead in polls, McDonnell will likely stick to his version of the "youthful indiscretion" defense. After all, it worked for presidential candidate George W. Bush.
Of course, fighting off charges of bigotry and substance abuse are two entirely different matters. Still, McDonnell's defense of his "Macaca Thesis" sounds eerily familiar. He insisted, "Listen, this campaign to me is not about a 20-year-old thesis," a "decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era and haven't thought about in years." On Monday, he described the views he committed to paper on the verge of his first run for office back in 1989:
"The things I wrote 20 years ago in an academic setting and the influences on my life at that time, many of them have changed because of my family, my job, my legislative experience, my real world experience."
Or, as then Governor George W. Bush frequently joked during his 2000 campaign against Al Gore, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible."
As he later revealed in his tell-all memoir, Bush press secretary Scott McClellan didn't believe his boss' public claims regarding his past cocaine use. During the 2000 election, Bush's Alberto Gonzales-like defense against charges of coke use (a combination of "I don't recall" and "the dog ate my blow") never became part of the campaign talking points. Instead, Bush and McClellan insisted on refusing to answer the question.
Those refusals during 1999 and 2000 often produced comic results. Challenged about the cocaine rumors during his 1994 Texas gubernatorial race, Bush responded, "''What I did as a kid? I don't think it's relevant." As his campaign against Al Gore heated up, Bush often quipped, "When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible." In August 1999, Bush denied using illegal drugs during the previous 25 years, even resorting to counting on his fingers when asked if he could pass an FBI background check:
"As I understand it, the current (FBI) form asks the question, 'Did somebody use drugs within the last seven years?' and I will be glad to answer that question, and the answer is 'No,'" Bush said in the interview.
The plot repeated itself when news of the 30-year old Bush's 1976 arrest for driving while intoxicated became public just days before voters went to the polls in November 2000. While his spokesperson Karen Hughes responded, "He has made mistakes and has been very forthcoming about those mistakes," Bush himself returned to his script:
"I have been straightforward with the people, saying that I used to drink too much in the past."
"I have been very candid about my past. I've said I've made mistakes in the past. People know that. They've thought about that. They're making their minds up now."
The same gambit that worked for Governor Bush in 2000 also got the job done for the legendary Illinois Republican Representative Henry Hyde two years earlier. As it turned out, the Clinton inquisitor had a long-term adulterous affair which commenced in 1965 when he was 41 years old. Nonetheless, as Salon recounted, Hyde chalked it up to a "youthful indiscretion."
"My mother is very mad about Henry Hyde's statement -- she thinks it belittles the importance of their relationship," said her daughter, who asked that her name not be published because of the media firestorm surrounding the story. "Hyde called it a 'youthful indiscretion,' like it was just a fling or something. What a laugh. My mother said it was a long-term relationship."
Ultimately, of course, George W. Bush won the White House despite the publicity surrounding his not-so-youthful battles with his personal demons. As for Bob McDonnell, he hopes to similarly sweep under the rug his past criticism of the demons he sees around him: working women, feminists, gay Americans and so many more.