My Blog-lleague (do you like the new word?) The Mason Conservative recently picked up Frank Atkinson’s Virginia in the Vanguard, and is raving about it over at his joint. Having recently re-read the book myself, I commented if he could put his finger on the missing element in the book. TMC guessed “Tom Davis”, for which he gets partial credit.
Two things are missing from the book, one small and one large. The small item is the author’s perspective. When Frank (and having known him for almost 30 years I will indulge in the first name privilege) wrote The Dynamic Dominion he did the research and drafting as me went from college student to law student to law clerk. He was not a mover and shaker, and he included far more accounts by the players on both sides of the aisle. By the time he wrote Vanguard he had moved in the world to being a large presence in the Richmond legal profession and an advisor and counselor to Governors of Virginia. He is a big dog, and often a player in the events being discussed. As a result, the book loses some of the personal flair of Dominion and takes on more of the tone of a textbook.
What is really missing in Vanguardis anything beyond a superficial consideration of Virginia’s congressional politics and elections. While the Virginia GOP only took majority status in 1999, the GOP and Dems have been swapping majority status back and forth since 1972. Frank Wolf, who is ranked in the top twenty most influential folks on Capitol Hill gets one brief mention in Vanguard. Tom Davis, a political mastermind and longtime potential statewide candidate who won back the new 11th district-a few mentions. Generally speaking, Congressman only got major ink if they were interested in statewide races (i.e. LF Payne and Stan Parris). I think while the omission is understandable from a traditional point of view, the book loses something crucial due to the omission.
Virginia has a tradition of sorts…for aspiring Virginia politicians typically the road runs from Richmond to Washington, and not the other way around. Several Governors (Swanson, Byrd, Tuck, Allen, Robb) went on to DC in one legislative house or the other, but not since Tom Stanley in 1953 has a Virginia member of Congress successfully won a statewide race for a state office. Thus, it is not surprising Frank chose to focus attention elsewhere. This is especially true as his life and experience is Richmond base, not Washington, and congressional anecdotes are mentioned only insofar as they affect Richmond or are affected by Richmond. Example-Owen Pickett and the Wilder/Byrd controversy in 1982 that pushed Pickett from the race is given a fair amount of space, but Pickett winning the 2nd district seat in 1986 receives small attention. This book carries on the very “Virginia” tradition of focusing on state politics and leaving federal level politics to wonks and those concerned with Defense and federal employee matters.
Part of this is based in the Virginia practice of having federal and state elections in different years…part of this is based in a habit of most of the state to look to Richmond for guidance and not Washington. Probably it has its historical roots in “The Recent Unpleasantness”, a term I once heard from a TC Williams law professor right before he referred to Monument Avenue as being the “Street of Second Place Bowling Trophies”.
Ah, but I digress…
While understandable from a traditional standpoint, this omission misses an opportunity to not only frame Virginia politics in a more complete light, but also misses the chance to use Congressional electoral fights to underscore the tensions and struggles that undergirded state elections in the years covered. A short list of compelling congressional fights and figures worthy of coverage:
A) Comparison of Frank Wolf and Stan Parris-the first a man whose dream job is being a congressman v. a man who seemed to want every political position he could have gained.
B) The GOP loss and redemption of the 6th district, and how the Roanoke influences behind Ray Garland made a decision in 1982 to sit on their hands and risk losing the seat to the Democrats rather than have a congressman who was not from the Roanoke end of the 6th district.
C) How Rick Boucher worked the 9th district demographics to dislodge long term incumbent Bill Wampler in 1982.
D) How state Senator Joe Canada’s convention mishaps in 1977 and 1981 gummed up his congressional chances in 1986
E) How the Democrats gummed up their chances to win the old Lucky 7th congressional district pre-1990 by running candidates from Charlottesville instead of Winchester
E1) The near bloodbath that occured in Charlottesville in 1984 when choosing a GOP successor for Ken Robinson.
F) More attention to the 1992 11th district race, where Virginia got its first woman congressional representative when the GOP chose a congressman’s son to run without adequately vetting him.
G) How Norm Sissiky’s death may have saved Randy Forbes career, not to mention how the event indirectly helped springboard Tim Kaine’s career.
H) How Mark Warner hustled the Kerry campaign out of $250,000 for voter ID in Virgina 10 in 1984 by convincing Kerry it was winnable for James Socas.
I) Carpetbagging in a mobile society…James Socas lost the 2004 Va-10 race in part by being framed as a “carpetbagger” without sufficient Virginia roots…how long do you have to be connected to Virginia to be viable? Does it change based on where in the state you are.
J) The Wolf-Milliken race of 1986, which was the last great democratic attempt to take the old 10th when it still contained Arlington.
These are just some of the events and ideas that are related to congressional politics that come to mind that were not covered or received only cursory notice in Vanguard. Perhaps they will be the subject of a different book…or maybe they will be covered in the next edition of Vanguard. We shall see.
Nonetheless, no matter how typical it is of Virginia political tradition to separate out the politics of state elections and federal elections, I think a chance was missed here…and what could have been a comprehensive classic instead becomes a valuable book that could have been more.