Charles Spittal “Chuck” Robb has been a Marine Corps major, the governor of Virginia (1982–86), a U.S. senator (1989–2001), and a professor at George Mason University’s Schar School of Policy and Government (2001–10). This month, the longtime McLean resident adds “author” to that list of titles, as his long-awaited autobiography, In the Arena: A Memoir of Love, War, and Politics, gets published by UVA Press, with a foreword by Bill Clinton. Robb and his wife, Lynda Bird, daughter of Lyndon B. and Lady Bird Johnson, raised three daughters in a house on a bluff overlooking the Potomac River; Lucinda and Jennifer live in Arlington, while Catherine is in Austin, Texas. Robb, who will be 82 in June, reports that he is relieved to once again enjoy visits with his five grandchildren now that he and Lynda Bird have received the COVID vaccine. The gracious and loquacious graduate of Mount Vernon High School in Alexandria (class of ’57) and proud Vietnam veteran recently welcomed us into his home office via Zoom.
The seeds of the book were planted in 1998, when Robb started making notes of things he’d want to write about his life, should he ever get around to it. For a good while, though, he was preoccupied with other things—like trying mightily to find a suitable candidate to take his Senate seat in 2000. “I knew this was going to be my last tour,” the famously centrist Democrat says. Despite his best efforts to woo possible candidates who could appeal to voters across the state, Robb ultimately “decided I was going to have to do it myself.” He lost to former Virginia Gov. George Allen, a Republican.
Even after setting aside those worries, it wasn’t always easy to put pen to paper. “The hardest chapter was probably the first section,” says Robb, “just because I am not an author by trade…I haven’t had [to write] anything that involved talking about myself.”
But his favorite sections are the early ones, particularly when he describes his courtship of President Johnson’s eldest daughter. “The first couple of chapters are almost exclusively about our courtship and our wedding,” he says. “I still get glassy-eyed when I go through some of those [chapters] in editing. It happens every time.”
Here’s how it happened: Robb, an honor graduate at Quantico, was assigned by the Marines to the White House as a social aide when he met Lynda (Secret Service code name: “Velvet”). “Lynda later liked to tease,” he writes, “when asked how we ended up together, that she picked me out of the class of military social aides by pointing a finger in my direction and saying, ‘I’ll take that one.’” For his part, he writes, “She was, to use a modern term, out of my league.” Regardless, they married in the East Room of the White House in what was then billed as “an American royal wedding.”
He also details his time in combat zones in Vietnam, an extremely dangerous assignment that he had been requesting for years, despite misleading news reports to the contrary that he still finds profoundly objectionable. In the book, he recalls how Maxine Cheshire, then a famous Washington Post gossip columnist, said she “heard” him say he didn’t want to go to Vietnam. When challenged, she said she had read his lips from across the room at an official function. “The only answer that I could give is that I saw it clearly and without hesitation as my duty, and my father-in-law’s position did not change that,” he writes.
Of all the professional titles Chuck Robb has borne, what is his favorite? “Oh, governor!” he says without hesitation. “It’s the same thing that drew me to the Marine Corps: I like the challenge it presents, but I prefer something where you have a real sense of ownership and you’re not walking through the souk every day trading back and forth on one amendment … I liked to be able to lay out a plan, lead the effort, and know that my say was a vital part and that it couldn’t be traded away when I’m not present.”
This story originally ran in our May issue. For more stories like this, subscribe to our monthly magazine.