We had a good example of this during the last presidential election. Libertarian Ron Paul was making a stronger than expected run for the Republican nomination. He opposed the Iraq War, advocated the legalization of drugs, dramatically reducing the size of the federal government (and most importantly), allowing farmers to sell raw milk directly to customers. Okay, maybe no one else was concerned about raw milk, but his other stances cobbled together an odd coalition of libertarians, small government advocates, students, anti-war protesters, and let's face it, potheads.
Rumours surfaced about a series of constituent newsletters from decades ago contained passages opposing the "black animals" taking over our cities. Paul denied that there was any racist overtones in his letters, but declined to provide copies - saying that he no longer had any. He probably hoped that none of the newsletters had survived. An enterprising reporter found them in a university library archive collection - and they were bad. Mainstream Americans were horrified and his campaign fizzled. (Note: Paul claimed that a ghostwriter had inserted the numerous passages without his knowledge, but most observers were skeptical of his reliability).
We saw a similar dynamic in Virginia's last Senate contest. Our incumbent senator made a racial remark - calling a worker for the challenger "Macaca," which is the Portuguese equivalent of the n-bomb in front of an all white audience. In days past, it was possible for politicians to make racist asides to an audience without concern about it becoming public. But modern technology makes that kind of thing dicey. Source survivability in the era of cellphone cameras is a scary thing to politicians.
Source survivability has raised its head in this year's gubernatorial contest. Bob McDonnell has a master's degree from Regents University. Master's theses are publicly available. A reporter traveled to Regents and got a copy of McDonnell's thesis, which he wrote in 1989.
Ideas that may have had widespread support in 1989 can be problematic just one generation later. (Recall that we looked at how the generation that came of age after the end of the last Indian Wars gave us Helen Hunt Jackson - 20 years later). McDonnell says that he no longer holds the views espoused in his thesis, but some suspect that the thesis reveals his true ideology. This is the kind of problem that historians have to struggle with. We have a source that may shed light on the current situation, but how does one judge McDonnell's sincerity when he says he has changed? In the article, McDonnell uses several compelling pieces of evidence to demonstrate that he no longer opposes women working outside the home - his wife and daughters do so and he has hired several women for his staff.
Please read the article below and then analyze the issue in the comments. I'd suggest working on you answer in a word processing file and then cutting and pasting into the comments.
1) Should a thesis McDonnell wrote twenty years ago influence voters today? Why or why not?
2) Would you want to be judged for what you are writing now twenty years in the future? Does age matter? For example, you might be willing to dismiss what someone wrote when they were 15. Would you be as willing to dismiss it if they were 20? 35? 50? (McDonnell was 34).
3) If McDonnell no longer believes what he wrote in the thesis, should his previous beliefs influence how people vote?
4) What factors would you, as a historian, consider when assessing whether McDonnell still believes what he wrote in 1989?
5) After considering those factors and the evidence offered by McDonnell, do you think he still believes what he wrote way back when? There is no right or wrong answer here. I want you to assess the evidence.
You can find the actual thesis here if you want to look at the primary source.
Article reprinted below for educational purposes.
'89 Thesis A Different Side of McDonnell
Va. GOP Candidate Wrote on Women, Marriage and Gays
By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 30, 2009
At age 34, two years before his first election and two decades before he would run for governor of Virginia, Robert F. McDonnell submitted a master's thesis to the evangelical school he was attending in Virginia Beach in which he described working women and feminists as "detrimental" to the family. He said government policy should favor married couples over "cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators." He described as "illogical" a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples.
The 93-page document, which is publicly available at the Regent University library, culminates with a 15-point action plan that McDonnell said the Republican Party should follow to protect American families -- a vision that he started to put into action soon after he was elected to the Virginia House of Delegates.
During his 14 years in the General Assembly, McDonnell pursued at least 10 of the policy goals he laid out in that research paper, including abortion restrictions, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to favor his view of the traditional family. In 2001, he voted against a resolution in support of ending wage discrimination between men and women.
In his run for governor, McDonnell, 55, makes little mention of his conservative beliefs and has said throughout his campaign that he should be judged by what he has done in office, including efforts to lower taxes, stiffen criminal penalties and reform mental health laws. He reiterated that position Saturday in a statement responding to questions about his thesis.
"Virginians will judge me on my 18-year record as a legislator and Attorney General and the specific plans I have laid out for our future -- not on a decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era and haven't thought about in years."
McDonnell added: "Like everybody, my views on many issues have changed as I have gotten older." He said that his views on family policy were best represented by his 1995 welfare reform legislation and that he "worked to include child day care in the bill so women would have greater freedom to work." What he wrote in the thesis on women in the workplace, he said, "was simply an academic exercise and clearly does not reflect my views."
McDonnell also said that government should not discriminate based on sexual orientation or ban contraceptives and that "I am not advocating vouchers as there are legal questions regarding their constitutionality in Virginia."
The Washington Post learned of the thesis in a recent interview with McDonnell, who mentioned it in answering a question about his political roots. McDonnell brought up the paper in reference to a pair of Republican congressmen whom he interviewed as part of his research. McDonnell then offered: "I wrote my thesis on welfare policy."
McDonnell's opponent, state Sen. R. Creigh Deeds (Bath), and other Democrats have sought to highlight McDonnell's conservative record, saying he is obscuring a large part of his background to get elected. Deeds recently spoke to women's groups about McDonnell's record on abortion, saying that voters needed to know about his stances.
"There is a just a massive effort underway to rebrand Bob McDonnell, and his whole legislative career speaks otherwise," said former delegate Barnie K. Day (D-Patrick), who supports Deeds. "The voters have a right to know who these candidates really are."
When asked about Regent, McDonnell generally responds that it is one of many schools he has attended. He received a bachelor's in business administration at the University of Notre Dame in 1976, and he received a master's in business administration from Boston University in 1980 while serving overseas in the Army.
After four years in the Army and the start of a management career with a Fortune 500 health supply company, McDonnell moved with his wife, Maureen, and two young daughters from a suburb of Kansas City, Mo., to Virginia Beach, where he enrolled in a public policy master's program at what was then called CBN University. The school was founded by Pat Robertson and named for his Christian Broadcasting Network.
McDonnell said that he was seeking a faith-based institution that explored the Christian origins of Western law and that he and his wife wanted to return to Virginia, where they grew up. The school expected students to take their faith seriously; they were admitted only after signing a statement affirming that Jesus Christ was their savior. The school also produced a number of politically active conservatives. Its Web site used to say that 150 of its graduates worked in President George W. Bush's administration. Regent's motto: Christian leadership to change the world.
The combination of faith and public service was on McDonnell's mind, too. His 1989 thesis -- "The Republican Party's Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of The Decade" -- was on the subject he wanted to explore at Regent: the link between Christianity and U.S. law. The document was written to fulfill the requirements of the two degrees he was seeking at Regent, a master of arts in public policy and a juris doctor in law.
The thesis wasn't so much a case against government as a blueprint to change what he saw as a liberal model into one that actively promoted conservative, faith-based principles through tax policy, the public schools, welfare reform and other avenues.
"Leaders must correct the conventional folklore about the separation of church and state," he wrote. "Historically, the religious liberty guarantees of the First Amendment were intended to prevent government encroachment upon the free church, not eliminate the impact of religion on society."
He argued for covenant marriage, a legally distinct type of marriage intended to make it more difficult to obtain a divorce. He advocated character education programs in public schools to teach "traditional Judeo-Christian values" and other principles that he thought many youths were not learning in their homes. He called for less government encroachment on parental authority, for example, redefining child abuse to "exclude parental spanking." He lamented the "purging of religious influence" from public schools. And he criticized federal tax credits for child care expenditures because they encouraged women to enter the workforce.
"Further expenditures would be used to subsidize a dynamic new trend of working women and feminists that is ultimately detrimental to the family by entrenching status-quo of nonparental primary nurture of children," he wrote.
He went on to say feminism is among the "real enemies of the traditional family."
McDonnell said in his statement that he is "fully supportive of the tremendous contributions women make in the workplace. My wife and daughters work. My campaign manager in 2005 was a working mother. I appointed 5 women to my senior staff as Attorney General."
Maureen McDonnell held a variety of positions with the federal government before the couple started a family, according to the campaign, and she has since run a series of small businesses out of the home. McDonnell's daughter Jeanine served in the Army in Iraq and is now a civilian contract employee; his daughter Cailin is coordinating youth outreach for the Republican Party of Virginia's election efforts this year. Neither daughter is married or has children.
McDonnell's thesis also spends a good deal of time on the importance of tax policy to the health of families. He called for the repeal of the estate tax and for the adoption of a modified flat tax to replace the graduated income tax. Awarding deductions and distributions based on need "is socialist," McDonnell wrote.
His advocacy of abortion restrictions is well known; he sponsored or co-sponsored numerous pieces of legislation on the topic, including a ban on late-term abortions, a requirement that minors receive parental consent before having an abortion and a mandated 24-hour waiting period for women seeking an abortion. He and like-minded colleagues succeeded in repealing Virginia's estate tax and reforming welfare law, as well as restricting access to abortion.
He also sponsored bills on four occasions to establish covenant marriage in Virginia. All four were unsuccessful. Under McDonnell's proposals, couples choosing to enter covenant marriage would have been required to obtain premarital counseling and sign a declaration of intent acknowledging that marriage is a lifelong commitment. In addition, the time of separation necessary for couples with children to obtain a no-fault divorce would have been extended from one to two years.
One controversy that drew wide attention was an effort in the General Assembly in 2003 to end the judicial career of Verbena M. Askew, a Circuit Court judge from Newport News who had been accused of sexual harassment by a woman who worked for her. As chairman of the Courts of Justice Committee, McDonnell led the effort in the House. He said he was opposed to Askew's reappointment because she didn't disclose, as required, that she was a party to a legal proceeding.
McDonnell was widely quoted at the time as saying that homosexual activity raised questions about a person's qualifications to be a judge. Spokesman Tucker Martin said McDonnell was misquoted and does not consider homosexuality a disqualifying factor for judgeships or other jobs.
Askew, who was not reappointed, denied any wrongdoing and was never found by a court to have harassed the employee.
Republican friends who support McDonnell's campaign for governor acknowledge parting ways with some of his more conservative views. Former governor and U.S. senator George Allen said he doesn't share McDonnell's opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest. "There should always be an exception," he said. And state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle (Virginia Beach), a close friend first elected to the legislature the same year as McDonnell, described covenant marriage as "the state overstepping its bounds."
Allen, Stolle and other Republicans say that such positions represent a small piece of McDonnell's record.
McDonnell is quick to point out his promotion of criminal justice legislation, an interest that stemmed from his two years as an assistant prosecutor in Virginia Beach after his graduation from Regent. He points to a record of bipartisan cooperation as attorney general that included toughening Virginia's laws on sex offenders, cracking down on identity theft and promoting stricter laws against animal fighting. He says that he worked closely with Democratic Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, particularly in the aftermath of the Virginia Tech shootings, and that he was praised by Democrats on the day he left office for his handling of the Virginia Tech crisis and other accomplishments.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who has shared most of McDonnell's conservative positions over the years, said there is no question that the candidate is playing down his conservatism today. Marshall said McDonnell risks alienating two groups of voters: moderates who might view him as hiding his true beliefs and conservatives who might think that he is no longer conservative enough.
"If you duck something, that tells your opponents that you think your position is a liability," said Marshall, who is backing McDonnell. "Why else wouldn't you acknowledge it? But I'll tell you, I've got precinct captains who are annoyed that he's not answering these questions. He doesn't have to bash people in the head with it. But he doesn't have to put it in the closet, either. There's a balance you can take."
Staff writers Rosalind S. Helderman and Anita Kumar contributed to this report.