Robb's reputation stained, but damage may not be permanent


WASHINGTON -- Exactly four years ago, after a swirl of sexual allegations knocked Gary Hart out of the presidential race, prominent Democrats were beating a path to Charles S. Robb's door and begging him to run.

The former Virginia governor listened politely but went for the Senate instead, winning in a landslide.

Now, Democrats are again seeking a savior who can reclaim the White House next year. But you can bet your next paycheck no one's urging Mr. Robb to take up the mantle. Not after the trashing his reputation has gotten over the past month.

Through two decades in the public eye, the name Chuck Robb summoned up noble images: Proud Marine. Vietnam vet. Social progressive. Fiscal conservative. Straight arrow. Future president.

The headlines over the past four weeks, however, would seem to suggest a much different picture: Drug use. Peccadilloes. Beauty queen. Police inquiry. Cocaine.

It began in late April with "Expose," a half-hour NBC News show, which broadcast allegations of an affair seven years ago between Mr. Robb, the son-in-law of the late President Lyndon B. Johnson, and a former beauty queen. The show reported that the then-governor had also been an eyewitness to cocaine use at a 1983 party. And NBC accused a senior Robb aide of attempting to intimidate a private detective who had been hired by a Virginia Republican to investigate Mr. Robb's personal life.

The senator has denied ever using drugs or being aware that cocaine was used in his presence. He acknowledged that on Feb. 7, 1984, he shared a bottle of wine with Miss Virginia/USA Tai Collins, then 20, in his room at the Hotel Pierre in New York City and that after he disrobed, she massaged his back. He denied having sexual relations with her.

News media interest in the program mushroomed after a detailed briefing by Mr. Robb's staff, which was widely seen as a clumsy attempt at a pre-emptive strike against NBC. The result has been to soil the squeaky-clean image the 51-year-old senator spent decades constructing.

Almost overnight, Mr. Robb became an object of ridicule in political circles and, much worse, in the monologues of TV's late-show comics. (Question: What's a moderate Democratic senator? Answer: Someone who'll settle for a massage.)

At one level, the Robb expose is the latest episode in the long-running debate over the news media's role in reporting on the private lives of public figures.

NBC was widely criticized in journalistic and political circles for recycling old, unproven allegations about Mr. Robb's personal life, most of which had been aired in 1987 and 1988 in the Virginia press. The senator's defenders noted that no evidence was presented to suggest that Mr. Robb had engaged in similar behavior since the mid-1980s. There were also questions about the national newsworthiness of behavior by a politician who was not actively seeking the presidency and had no apparent plans to do so in 1992.

But the controversy didn't stop there. It has since grown into a political story, centering on the senator's home-state rivalry with Gov. L. Douglas Wilder.

Although a private detective with links to the Republican Party has been identified as the main source of news leaks about Mr. Robb's behavior, the senator and his aides implied that Mr. Wilder had helped spread the allegations. The governor and his aides seemed to give credence to that charge by pointedly failing to come to Mr. Robb's defense. (In the midst of the Robb-bashing, Mr. Wilder's chief political adviser, Paul Goldman, the state Democratic chairman, made fun of the senator over an unrelated matter. Mr. Wilder chastised his adviser but has yet to come to Mr. Robb's defense.)

That drew in the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson, who is vying with Mr. Wilder for the allegiance of black Democrats as both men maneuver toward possible presidential bids.

Mr. Jackson has been sharply at odds with Mr. Robb over the senator's efforts to move the Democratic Party to the right, but he defended Mr. Robb against the "vulgar and unfair" attacks on his reputation. Mr. Jackson went on to criticize a Virginia State Police investigation last week as a "witch hunt" that "left some mud on the credibility of a U.S. senator."

The police inquiry, the latest act in the Robb contretemps, was announced May 17. It was apparently intended to delve into allegations that Robb aides or supporters tried to intimidate Ms. Collins and a Virginia Beach police lieutenant, who said they received threats and reprisals after speaking out about Mr. Robb's private life.

But the inquiry ended after just three days, with no details released about the findings. Governor Wilder, who has the authority to order investigations, insists that neither he nor his staff was involved. But the inquiry has led to renewed questions about the governor's role.

Whether the inquiry produces any criminal charges or not, it has already generated a fresh round of damaging publicity for Mr. Robb.

Conflicting statements by state police spokesmen, who finally said that alleged intimidation, and not the senator himself, was -- the target of the inquiry, produced a wave of misleading news stories and headlines across the nation.

"Allegations of Robb Drug Use Examined," headlined the Los Angeles Times. "Cocaine allegations against Robb probed," said the Houston Chronicle. An Associated Press report carried in May 18 editions of The Sun said that charges of "drug-related wrongdoing" by Mr. Robb were under investigation and bore the headline, "Allegations against Robb bring Va. police inquiry."

Today, hopeful that the worst of the controversy is behind him, Mr. Robb is searching for ways to rebuild his tattered image. The senator's press secretary, Steve Johnson, said that Mr. Robb, who has yet to speak publicly about the entire incident, would address it sometime in the next few weeks or so.

Meantime, others are already measuring the damage to what once was regarded as one of the brightest political futures in Washington.

"Everyone looks at him a little bit differently," said John C. White, former chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

Despite initial predictions, in the wake of the NBC broadcast, that Mr. Robb would no longer be a viable presidential contender, analysts now say that he seems to have weathered the controversy and that his political wounds are not fatal.

His enormous popularity in Virginia is likely to have cushioned the blow in his home state, and his Senate re-election in 1994 does not appear in serious jeopardy at the moment. A poll by Mason-Dixon Research of Columbia, conducted shortly after the NBC show aired, found that Mr. Robb's job performance rating had dropped 12 percentage points. He was elected in 1988 with 71 percent of the vote.

"He's never going to have this total image of the square-jawed Marine again, but in this day and age, it may have tended to humanize him a bit," said Michael McCurry, a Democratic consultant. "I think it basically came across that Robb was guilty of an indiscretion and not a high crime or misdemeanor."

Politicians in both parties fault the news media, particularly NBC, for their handling of the Robb story. But they also bluntly criticize the senator's failure to control the political damage more effectively.

"He'll have to handle crisis situations better than this one," said Mr. White. "I think we all felt that Chuck was a future presidential candidate. He had the looks, and he had the reputation. Now he's going to have to show some leadership skill."

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