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Should Pols Be Judged By Student Writings?

There's a front-pager in today's WaPo about the political storm that has erupted in the Virginia governor's race thanks to the paper's Sunday report on Republican candidate Robert McDonnell's 1989 master's thesis from his studies in public policy and law at Regent University.

Little wonder the thesis has become a hot topic: Outlining beliefs that would have made Regent founder Pat Robertson swoon with ecstasy, McDonnell makes clear his disgust with (among many, many other things) gays, working women, and "fornicators." (McDonnell disapproved of the Supreme Court's 1972 decision legalizing birth control for unmarried couples.)

Democrats are, predictably, rushing to hang this bit of Neanderthalism around McDonnell's neck as he tries to woo moderates and female voters. Republicans, in turn, are whining that Dems are unfairly picking on McDonnell because of a 20-year-old paper. As the candidate himself complained, voters shouldn't judge him "based on a decades-old academic paper I wrote as a student during the Reagan era."

I find myself torn in this fight. In general, I find the obsession with politicians' student writings excessive. Most of these papers spring from the  brains of people in their early- to mid-20s who have spent the past several years in the self-indulgent cocoon of academia. I realize there's no demographic group more convinced of its inherent genius and infallibility than recent college graduates and grad students. But in reality, most people don't spring forth from Harvard or Berkeley or Florida State or Texas A&M fully formed. (Thank god.) Many even (gasp!) change their views as they trudge through the big, wide, complicated world.

That said, Republicans are hardly in a position to gripe about this tendency. Anyone recall the frenzy the Right whipped itself into over Hillary's thesis on Saul Alinksy or Michelle O's thesis on black Princeton grads? The former ostensibly proved Hillary to be a socialist and the latter revealed Michelle to be a militant whitey-hating bigot. Ah, good times.

So we're to judge Democrats by their academic ramblings but not Republicans? I think not. Moreoever, if we want to get picky, I could point out that McDonnell wasn't some fresh young thing when he submitted his thesis. He was 34 years old, more seasoned than your average student scribbler and with a fair amount of real world experience in both the military and the business world. He wasn't especially young or naive--except, of course, in the ways of electoral politics.  

Now, 20 years down the road, would it be more sensible for voters to judge the candidate on his public career and political record? Probably. But I can't bring myself to feel sorry for McDonnell or waste one minute listening to the huffy complaints of his Republican defenders, whose sudden display of perspective will undoubtedly fly out the window the next time they have the opportunity to shred some Democrat's masters thesis, college application essay, or junior-high yearbook quote. Like everything else, toxic academic radicalism is in the eye of the beholder.

God help us if Joe Biden's grade-school collection of dirty limmericks ever surfaces.