Who Cares About McDonnell’s Thesis?

Virginia GOP Gubernatorial candidate Robert McDonnell is taking quite a bit of flak for a thesis he wrote in college in 1989.

The media spotlight is on gubernatorial hopeful Robert McDonnell who is currently launching his 2009 campaign for governor of Virginia. McDonnell finds himself in hot water for his 1989 thesis, which outlines a position hostile to women’s interests and feminism.

Frankly, I think this kind of thing misses the mark. Politicians who have been in office for awhile have had ample opportunity to build a record that can be judged. More importantly, that record can show how a politician’s thinking has evolved over the years. People change their minds. They vote different ways. Moreover, as Will notes, this type of examination can have a chilling effect on academia:

Moreover, I’m wary of the chilling effect academic witch-hunts have on the interaction between experts and politicians. Presumably, we want our political leaders to get advice from academics, who are disinterested and frequently more knowledgeable on a particular subject. Academic documents are also fundamentally different from political ones — they’re less vetted, more exploratory, and ultimately less subject to artificial political constraints. I think this is a good thing, and I’d like to see more practical interaction between the academy and policy-makers precisely because academics have more freedom to come up with good ideas.

I completely agree. Judge McDonnell on his record in office; not his college thesis.

FILED UNDER: Politics 101, US Politics, ,
Alex Knapp
About Alex Knapp
Alex Knapp is Associate Editor at Forbes for science and games. He was a longtime blogger elsewhere before joining the OTB team in June 2005 and contributed some 700 posts through January 2013. Follow him on Twitter @TheAlexKnapp.

Comments

  1. Furhead says:

    Agreed. Like most college-age boys, I thought I knew everything and have since learned that I did not. I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged based on opinions I offered back then.

  2. Fog says:

    I think your point is well taken, Alex, but we’re assuming that Mr O’Donnell has a record that answers all pertinent questions. I don’t think it’s beyond the pale for someone to examine BOTH the thesis and his record in office to see how his positions have evolved (or haven’t as the case may be). How have his earlier beliefs informed his actions in office? I think that’s a legit question, especially if he held some pretty radical opinions.

  3. Rick Almeida says:

    Alex,

    I wonder if you’re being a little superficial here…in this case, it’s a master’s thesis written by a 34 year old man which makes a number of specific, controversial policy prescriptions.

    If the 20 years that have passed have caused him to disavow the policies he advocated in his mid-30s, he should of course be free to say so.

    There’s an empirical question here – has his record as an elected official fit the principles and policies he advocated as a master’s candidate?

  4. Triumph says:

    Moreover, as Will notes, this type of examinaiton can have a chilling effect on academia:

    No it won’t. This guy wasn’t at a real university. The thesis was written at a diploma mill run by a nutcase Christian.

    If you actually read the thesis you will see that it isn’t an academic document based on empiricism or the scientific method, but rather an ideological exercise.

    There is nothing wrong, necessarily, with ideological musings, but they shouldn’t be confused with academic inquiry.

    The scrutiny of this guy’s writings at Robertson State will have no bearing on academic discourse since anyone in the academy understands that everything which comes out of places like Robertson State is prattle.

  5. Steve Plunk says:

    Wasn’t there a controversy about our current president’s college thesis? Couldn’t be found? Wasn’t relevant? Something like that. Google doesn’t help since apparently it still hasn’t been found.

  6. Triumph says:

    Wasn’t there a controversy about our current president’s college thesis?

    No. He didn’t write a thesis. You’re thinking of his baby mama’s work at Princeton.

  7. Jack Bauer says:

    No. He didn’t write a thesis. You’re thinking of his baby mama’s work at Princeton.

    No. el Presidente Papa Doc did write a 1984 thesis at Columbia on arms talks between the USA and the USSR, in which he parroted the conventional communist lines.

    In it he called for a nuclear parity freeze, the policy Reagan rejected and which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    He also blamed Reagan for the break down in talks with the USSR. And called the USA to task for comitting mass murder in Japan when it unilaterally detonated two A-Bombs.

    Nothing controversial there then.

    PS

    I forced myself to read The First Lady’s Princeton thesis. It is even worse than you might imagine a race obsessed, narrow focused, sad piece of work would be.

    What a waste of four years at university.

  8. andrew says:

    Looks like the Washington Post is trying to recreate what they did in 2006. I wouldn’t be surprised if the morons in Virginia fell for it.

  9. PD Shaw says:

    I have to side with Triumph here. (??!!??) This isn’t Obama’s strategic plan from Kindergarten to become President. A mature, political work that McDonnell should be asked questions about.

  10. ggr says:

    Twenty years is a pretty long time, enough for most of us to rethink many things. And it seems strange to put much weight on something like in any case for someone who’s actually been in office for some time since then.

    This could go both ways. Would having written a beautifully idealistic thesis make up for someone having governed with bad policies? Talk is cheap as they say, and for those who’ve been in office, going by anything but their actual record is simply silly.

  11. PD Shaw says:

    Wasn’t there a controversy about our current president’s college thesis? Couldn’t be found? Wasn’t relevant?

    Obama was on the Harvard Law Review and oddly did not appear to have written anything for it. Harvard doesn’t attribute writers of student articles. Eventually, someone found the law review article which was about abortion law and was either too boring for anybody to care about or involved a topic in which sides had already been drawn.

  12. peterh says:

    He utilized the thesis during his years in the Virginia General Assembly…..it’s fair game….it shows him to be a religious nutjob….read the Wiki….

  13. PD Shaw says:

    it seems strange to put much weight on something like in any case for someone who’s actually been in office for some time since then.

    I don’t disagree with this. I’m not from Virginia, and this is the first I’ve heard of the guy. I expect if I lived in Virginia I would have a larger frame of reference and the thesis may not matter much. I just see no reason to treat it as sacrosanct from inquiry.

  14. It’s fair game. If he’s grown since then — you know, stopped being a brain-dead religious nut and douche nozzle — no problem. People can grow, people can change.

    But the burden of proof is on him.

  15. Jack Bauer says:

    Okay. If we’re going to vet undergraduate college theses, let’s see Creagh Deeds’ from Concord University.

    “Concord University is a comprehensive, public, liberal arts institution located in Athens, West Virginia, founded on February 28, 1872, when the West Virginia Legislature passed “an Act to locate a Branch State Normal School, in Concord Church, in the County of Mercer”.

    By the way, Deeds is the school’s most notable alumnus, so it should not be too difficult to find what he wrote in 1980.

    Conincidentally, wasn’t that the same year the President of the United States mysteriously went to Pakistan as Barry Soreto and returned as Barack Hussein Obama? Mmmm, how odd.

  16. An Interested Party says:

    No. el Presidente Papa Doc did write a 1984 thesis at Columbia on arms talks between the USA and the USSR, in which he parroted the conventional communist lines.

    It’ll be such a pleasure when the Tonton Macoutes come around and chop your limbs off…that’ll teach ya…

  17. kth says:

    I’m not quite seeing where or why it’s invalid to infer that, on the evidence of his masters’ thesis, McDonnell is marginally more likely to support abstinence-only education, the teaching of “intelligent design”, more onerous restrictions on the availability of family-planning services, and generally more insertion of evangelical Protestantism into public life.

  18. Jack Bauer says:

    It’ll be such a pleasure when the Tonton Macoutes come around and chop your limbs off…that’ll teach ya…

    I expect it’ll only be the ususal Obamabot Zombies. They have no brain, you know.

    Besides, as a Hounan practioner of the voodoo arts, they are in for a major surprise.

  19. Pug says:

    No. He didn’t write a thesis. You’re thinking of his baby mama’s work at Princeton.

    Baby mama? I guess class is something you either have or you don’t. You don’t.

    This McDonnell guy was not wet behind the ears when he wrote his thesis. He was a 34-year old military veteran and father of three. Hardly a silly college kid.

    He was older than Lieutenant John Kerry who testified before Congress while still angry about his experiences in Vietnam. Seems Republicans thought his words were fair game some 35 years later.

    No one ever said politics is fair.

  20. MarkedMan says:

    No. el Presidente Papa Doc did write a 1984 thesis at Columbia on arms talks between the USA and the USSR, in which he parroted the conventional communist lines.

    In it he called for a nuclear parity freeze, the policy Reagan rejected and which led to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

    He also blamed Reagan for the break down in talks with the USSR. And called the USA to task for comitting mass murder in Japan when it unilaterally detonated two A-Bombs.

    But wait. I thought the issue was that Obama’s thesis wasn’t available and that he wouldn’t make it public. How is it that you know what was in it?

  21. Charlotte says:

    I don’t think that the comparison of John Kerry (who lied and said quite awful things about our country and our brave military) with Mr. McDonnell is apt. You know, apples to oranges type thing.

    No one ever said politics is fair.

    While I acknowledge this, I think that you could conclude here that in order to maybe possibly sorta go into politics, one must NEVER change one’s attitudes. Most people (there are exceptions, of course) do mature, change and grow.

    Also, Mr. McConnell does have a legislative record. Look at that. Looking at papers written many years ago is really stretching. I wrote many papers in college and there are not many that I would want published.

    College is a time of exploration of ideas and philosophies. It does not matter how old Mr. McConnell was when he attended college and wrote the paper.

  22. PD Shaw says:

    He was older than my current U.S. Congressman, who was elected last year at the age of 27.

  23. Stan says:

    In a previous thread TangoMan and Zelsdorf R described an Obama appointee, Van Jones, as a communist. I looked the man up. He had taken part in demonstrations following the verdict in the Rodney King case, had been jailed, and in his rage expressed his agreement with communist doctrine, which view he has since renounced. His main political activity since then has been in the environmental movement. His communist phase occurred in the mid 90’s, which was his mid 20’s.

    When McDonnell finished his thesis in 1989, he was 34. If the nut cake views he expressed then should be disregarded now as a youthful folly, why is Jones still such a villain?

  24. Drew says:

    Bravo, Alex.

  25. sam says:

    If anyone is interested, you can read his thesis here. I note that he went to Notre Dame and Boston University before Regent University.

  26. Gustopher says:

    Why wouldn’t the thesis be relevant? The man was 34 and pretty set in his ways and his opinions by then.

    If he has changed since then, this is a good opportunity for him to repudiate what he thought as a callow youth of early middle age.

    I might be embarrassed or chagrined or even offended by what I wrote 20 years ago as a callow youth of 19, but I could still defend much of it and explain what changed me from the boy I was then to the man I am now.

    If he cannot do the same for what he wrote at age 34 — he’s either an idiot, or lying. People can change, but more often than not, they don’t.

  27. Furhead says:

    But wait. I thought the issue was that Obama’s thesis wasn’t available and that he wouldn’t make it public. How is it that you know what was in it?

    I was wondering the same thing. I’m sure it’s some well-informed unbiased summary straight from WND.

  28. ggr says:

    So the rule for future political hopefuls is to write extremely idealistic theses, on the grounds that they are to be judged on them rather than what they actually do in office?

    The reason for discounting the thesis is that its just words. What he actually did in office shows what he really thinks, what he put on paper as likely as not was just what he thought his committee wanted to hear. There’s a reason most people don’t trust political promises – they’re empty unless acted on.

    I’ve no idea what his record is like in office, but given discrepancies between his thesis and what he actually did, I’d assume what he actually did shows what he actually believes. A politician who writes a thesis about ending all wars and then starts a war is probably better judged by the war he started rather than the universal peace he wrote about.

  29. peterh says:

    Via Wikipedia:

    McDonnell’s 1989 thesis for Regents, a 93-page document entitled “The Republican Party’s Vision for the Family: The Compelling Issue of The Decade,” has gained attention in the campaign because it outlined a 15-point conservative Republican/Christian political agenda, 10 of which points McDonnell pursued during his years in the General Assembly, according to press analysis. These positions “included … opposition to abortion in cases of rape or incest …, covenant marriage, school vouchers and tax policies to favor his view of the traditional family and public policy discrimination against those he labeled as “cohabitators, homosexuals or fornicators.” In this master thesis he also declared his belief that working women harmed the family and described as “illogical” a 1972 Supreme Court decision legalizing the use of contraception by unmarried couples. At page 20 of the thesis, he wrote, “However, man’s basic nature is inclined towards evil, and when the exercise of liberty takes the shape of pornography, drug abuse, or homosexuality, the government must restrain, punish, and deter.”

    Now I know it may be difficult for some of you knuckledraggers to connect the dots and some will no doubt have problems with wikipedia…..but damn, to argue that there is a difference between what he wrote and what he pursued later is just damn poppycock…..

  30. Steve Plunk says:

    peterh,

    My friend referring to those who you might disagree as knuckledraggers does not advance your argument. The discussion here started as one of whether or not the thesis, indeed any student thesis, is grounds for criticism of a candidate today. It’s a debatable point with neither side being less than full homo sapien.

    Now before I am forced to join with the ape like creatures let me explain I’m not defending his words at this point but if we are going to drag old history into a campaign then we must do fairly for both side of the political spectrum. As well if we declare information like this in play then shouldn’t candidates produce their own docs if they use the those of their opponents?

    In defense of his thesis we need to keep in mind a student writes to please his professors who he will later have to present a defense. If Regents was a religious institution then writing a thesis based upon accepted doctrine would be the norm.

    People do change, evolve, or whatever you want to call it so your argument it doesn’t matter what his actual policies were later is faulty.

    Thanks for listening to one heavy browed, hairy, American.

  31. ggr says:

    Now I know it may be difficult for some of you knuckledraggers to connect the dots and some will no doubt have problems with wikipedia…..but damn, to argue that there is a difference between what he wrote and what he pursued later is just damn poppycock…..

    Which has nothing to do with the argument that his thesis is irrelevant. Suppose he’d written a thesis saying contraception should be given out freely, marriage should be between any two people who want it, and abortion should be given on demand … and then legislated as he actually did. Would you really be saying he should be judged on his thesis rather than what he legislated?

    His record stands or falls on his own merits, how it relates to his thesis is irrelevant. Or do you believe George “Read my lips” Bush really was against raising taxes?

  32. Jack Bauer says:

    But wait. I thought the issue was that Obama’s thesis wasn’t available and that he wouldn’t make it public. How is it that you know what was in it?

    Oh please. You’re kidding, right? About the sophomoric, plodding el Presidente Papa Doc? The man, on all published evidence, who never had an original thought in his head?

  33. TangoMan says:

    I was wondering the same thing. I’m sure it’s some well-informed unbiased summary straight from WND.

    No, it comes from an institution that long ago chucked journalistic standards: MSNBC:

    So we turned for answers to the former professor who graded the now-elusive paper.

  34. sam says:

    @Jack

    Oh please. You’re kidding, right? About the sophomoric, plodding el Presidente Papa Doc? The man, on all published evidence, who never had an original thought in his head?

    Ok, but where did you find out what was in the thesis? A link would be nice for the rest of us, if only for the info.

  35. sam says:

    Ah, see that Tman supplied a link.

  36. TangoMan says:

    His main political activity since then has been in the environmental movement. His communist phase occurred in the mid 90’s, which was his mid 20’s.

    Somehow I don’t think that you’d be as forgiving of the man if he had once proclaimed himself a Nazi and then channeled those same beliefs into his more hip and marketable “environmental” work.

    This soft-selling of Communism, as though it’s just another political preference, while the less murderous ideology of Nazism is held out to be an evil in a class of its own is mind boggling. Communists deserve the same disapproval directed at Nazis. The entire basis of Communism is evil.

    If you tell me that you’d tolerate a Nazi in the White House, then I could understand your standing idle while a Communist has the President’s ear. Short of that though I’d say that you’d excuse the Devil himself so long as he was a Democrat.

  37. An Interested Party says:

    Besides, as a Hounan [sic] practioner [sic] of the voodoo arts, they are in for a major surprise.

    Houngan is the term, but since you appear to be a brain-dead, knee-jerk opponent of the president, I wouldn’t hold it against you for not knowing that…

  38. Mike P says:

    This is just like people running around last year claiming that Michelle Obama’s thesis had all sorts of invective against white people or whatever it was folks were claiming. She’s wasn’t even running for public office, so if people didn’t get up in arms over that, they shouldn’t get all fussy now.

    In any event, there’s has to be some point where this stuff either matters or doesn’t. People smarter can me can determine where that cutoff point lies.

  39. Jack Bauer says:

    Well, after he loses in November, at least Deeds is going to have plenty of time to return to post-grad work.

    His Ph.D. thesis is going to be entitled:

    “How I Lost The 2009 Virginia Gubernatorial Race Despite the Best Efforts of the Washington Post to Maccaca My Opponent.”

  40. Al Bullock says:

    Deeds has all the luster of flat white. As Comrade Alinsky has instructed, when outclassed attack on anything and everything. Substance no longer matters!

  41. andy says:

    I think it is pretty awesome that most folks, including many right wingers, think the stuff that McDonnell wrote about in his “thesis” is just plain crazy. Or at least conservatives are generally too embarrassed to publicly support such archaic notions.

  42. Davebo says:

    Thread Dead!

    Seriously, who cares?

  43. Jim says:

    The amazing thing is that the Washington post has already published approx 20 articles on this since Sunday. I suspect they will beat their record of 200 articles they set with Sen. Allen’s Macacca comment.

  44. peterh says:

    Yo…Plunk & ggr….you critters are like talking to a dining room table….without wood….my whole point was about the thesis and how he ran it up the flag pole while in the Virginia General Assembly….if you can’t see the friggin’ cause and effect, your evolutionary process stopped well before you had knuckles to drag….and if you haven’t figured it out, I’m not very tactful towards parroted stupidity….you can dance around it all you want, but if you can’t debunk the fact that he pursued his thesis into his political life…..which means, if I have to spell it out for ya, beyond his youthful 34 yr old student days…also means….you have no standing and zero creditability in this debate….

  45. peterh says:

    I tend to read this site almost daily while commenting rarely….what I’ve noticed…with exceptions….is a typical chime in from the author of the thread….so Alex….are you sticking to your stated conclusion or maybe second thoughts?

  46. sam says:

    Todays WaPo has an interesting article, McDonnell Tries to Salvage Women’s Votes.

    For the record, I believe in the redemption of souls (in a secular way), and while it’s probably too much to ask of one’s political opponents that they refrain from trotting out these adolescent academic mudpies (and believe me, looking back from 68, 34 is adolescence), it’s what the guy’s done from then to now that really ought to be the issue.

  47. ggr says:

    your evolutionary process stopped well before you had knuckles to drag

    Hm, you seem to think evolution is something that goes on in an individual rather than a species. Perhaps you should study a bit of biology before using it for insults?

  48. Steve Plunk says:

    Seriously peterh, spirited debate is fine but insults are for children and bullies. I have no qualms with thesis being used or not used but consistency from the Left and media is lacking here.

  49. I know nobody is reading this thread at this point, but just for the record from that MSNBC link:

    Baron said that, even if he could find a copy of the paper, it would likely disappoint Obama’s critics. “The course was not a polemical course, it was a course in decision making and how decisions got made,” he said. “None of the papers in the class were controversial.”