In 1961, before anti-Vietnam War fervor seared Madison, Charles Robb BA 1961 was often seen walking down Langdon Street in his ROTC drill uniform on his way to his Chi Phi fraternity.
He was brigade commander of all campus ROTC units and went on to a Marine Corps career that led to his being stationed at the White House as a social aide. There, he met President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Bird Johnson, and the two were married in an elegant 1967 White House wedding.
But Robb didn’t hide behind prominent connections. He served two infantry combat tours in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star. After his military career, he earned a law degree at the University of Virginia and went on to serve decades in public life.
The Democrat rose from Virginia’s lieutenant governor to its governor in 1982, and after serving a single term, he was overwhelmingly elected to the U.S. Senate.
Allegations of Robb’s being present at parties where cocaine was present and of an extramarital affair clouded his first term. He denied the accusations, but he conceded to “socializing under circumstances not appropriate for a married man.” He then won a second term, defeating Iran-Contra figure Oliver North in 1994, despite being outspent four to one.
On Capitol Hill, Robb earned a reputation as being fiscally conservative and a friend of the military, though more liberal on social issues. He was one of several Democratic senators to vote for the military incursion in Kuwait, but he also voted for an assault-weapons ban, opposed a constitutional amendment banning flag burning, and opposed the so-called Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage as between a man and woman.
Thomas Daschle, the Democratic Senate majority leader, said Robb was a patriot who could work across party lines. “Chuck Robb rarely spoke about himself,” he said. “He has always been more comfortable speaking on behalf of others – the people whose voices too often are not heard at all.”
Robb’s 2001 Senate loss to George Allen was just the second election defeat of his life. The first was at UW–Madison, when he lost a contest for senior class president.
“I needed a little taking down,” Robb recalled. “Anybody who goes too long without some setback in life tends to lose an important perspective.”