Bob McDonnell and Regent University: judging a politician’s biography

Election Day insight #1: The election of Bob McDonnell in Virginia goes to show that in order to understand how a politician would govern, journalists need to focus on biography at least as much as on current issues.

McDonnell, governor-elect of Virginia, doesn’t seem to be dumb. Far from it. He went to Notre Dame on a ROTC scholarship and then got an MBA from Boston University while taking night courses. That’s nothing to scoff over, and all that hard work could mean he has some qualities of a good governor.

But then McDonnell chose to attent Regent University for a masters in public policy and a law degree. That decision was never discussed seriously by a press corps obsessed with the process story of the moment. A journalist interested more in character and biography and less in he-said-she-said could have used the opportunity to gain some real insights into how McDonnell will govern. 

Pat ‘I can leg-press 2,000 pounds’ Robertson

Regent was founded as the Christian Broadcasting Network University in 1978 by Pat Robertson, shortly before the SPIKE TV University and the Home Shopping Network technical school. It is unclear why Robertson bothered to found a university at the time, since he had publicly proclaimed just two years earlier that Judgement Day was coming in the fall of 1982. Could it be that he was justing lying about Doomsday? He certainly has a record of hucksterism – just check out his website where he claims he can leg press 2,000 pounds thanks to his age-defying shakes. But I’m a fan of hedging, so I’ll let him off the whole building-a-university-just-before-armageddon thing.

But I can’t let him off for his hateful and bizarre rhetoric, or his image of a bloodthirsty, petty, and vengeful God. Robertson believes that public acceptance of homosexuality leads to hurricanes, meteors, and terrorism. He once warned the little town of Dover, Pennsylvania, “If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected him from your city.” Dover, it seems, had the audacity to not re-elect a school board that was pushing creationism.  Of course, God immediately smote the town with a plague of moderate school board members, and Dover is plagued to this day with average scores on state-wide tests.

Regent Law School:  ‘Higher Law’, lowest ranking 

So  Bob McDonnell chose to go to Regent, the retarded brainchild of Pat Robertson’s vengeful little mind. Robertson, as Chancellor, set school policy and was responsible for much of the school’s anti-rationalism. Regent’s law journal “is committed to a jurisprudence based upon a Higher Law; that is, law based upon the Law of God, yet remains open to publishing opposing viewpoints in certain contexts.” It’s nice to know that a law journal is occasionally open to arguments rooted in actual law.

But with all that time focusing on Higher Law instead of actual law, it’s no surprise that only 43% of Regent’s graduates managed to pass the bar in 2001, and that US News ranks Regent’s law school as tied for dead last in the country. Regent is dedicated not just to mediocrity but to absolute failure. They mail out acceptance envelopes saying, “If you can find a worse law school, we’ll give you your money back. That’s the Regent Guarantee.”

Bob McDonnell: judging politicians for the life choices they make

And that brings us to Virginia’s governor-elect, Bob McDonnell. Back when he was choosing schools for his graduate studies, something about Regent (still called the Christian Broadcasting Network University at the time) made him say to himself: “That is the school for me. Out of all the other schools in the world, this is the one I will attend.”

Shouldn’t that choice be more of an issue during a campaign? Journalists generally focus on process stories: who’s saying what today, and how that could impact the race. And the few times they delve a little deeper, they ask the occasional question on infrastructure spending or school vouchers. We certainly need more issue-based questions, and process stories should die a slow and painful death.

But the issues that campaigns are waged over aren’t necessarily the issues the winner will have to deal with upon taking office. Just think back to when the McCain campaign thought that earmarks were going to be a game winner for them, and Obama was forced to respond. Does anyone seriously think that earmarks are anywhere near the top ten issues the president has to deal with today? No.

So during campaigns, perhaps reporters should get some insight into a person by instead looking at their past life choices and asking the candidate to explain his or her decisions. McDonnell did get some questions on his 1989 masters thesis, in which he attacks policies that make it easier for women to work outside the home. The thesis never became a game-changing issue, but McDonnell was able to talk about it as if it were ancient history. He told the Post, “Like everybody, my views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older.” the problem is that McDonnell was 34 years old when he submitted his thesis in 1989. How old is old enough to be responsible for one’s own thoughts and actions? Is 34 the new 24?

McDonnell was able to play the water-under-the-bridge card because journalists don’t take biography seriously enough. Perhaps they get caught up in the 24-hour news cycle so much that they can never step back and look at a person as a life story. Or maybe we are all too afraid of being called to account for our own decisions back then that we prefer to assign agency only to the people we are here and now.

Whatever the reason, not only did McDonnell get a pass on his thesis, he never even got asked about his decision to attend Regent in the first place. And that’s too bad, because it was a question that was just dying to be asked. And the answer might have provided some insight into the character of the man who will become the chief executive of one of the Commonwealth of Virginia.

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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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