Wilder Realizes a Presidential Dream

Article excerpt


RICHMOND - L. Douglas Wilder, the former Virginia governor who wanted to be president, is about to get his wish six years later than he hoped.

On Aug. 1, the nation's first elected black governor becomes president of his alma mater, Virginia Union University, a private, historically black school of 1,700 students in north Richmond.

Mr. Wilder, 67, a grandson of slaves who was named for poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar and abolitionist Frederick Douglass, will head a school abolitionists founded in 1865 in an old slave jail.

Cringing politicians may hope the job forces Mr. Wilder to give up his weekly radio show in which he revels as the bully in the bully pulpit.

But Mr. Wilder is unlikely to temper the candor that singes his fellow Democrats, such as U.S. Sen. Charles S. Robb and the party's last two nominees for governor, Mary Sue Terry and Donald S. Beyer Jr.

For example, he refuses to back off his December statement to reporters that Mr. Robb "has not distinguished himself" in the Senate and Democrats should not renominate him in 2000.

"There is an incontrovertible fact about Virginia politics," says Democratic spokeswoman Gail Nardi. "Wherever Governor Wilder is, life will be interesting."

As Virginia's most recent Democratic governor and a historic figure, Mr. Wilder is likely to remain a man to see in Virginia politics. He clearly enjoys being wooed by aspirants for statewide office.

"I'd like to hope that my influence would not wane so" that office seekers stop taking the time "to call and say `How do you feel?' " he says.

Although Mr. Wilder stayed on the fence during last year's race for governor, few would be surprised if he backed telecommunications tycoon Mark R. Warner, a likely Democratic candidate for governor in 2001.

Mark Warner served as chairman of the Democratic Party of Virginia while Mr. Wilder served as governor. Mr. Wilder supported Mr. Warner's bid for the U.S. Senate in 1996 and Mr. Warner sits on the Virginia Union board of trustees.

"I don't think I have been called upon to sacrifice or abandon or relinquish personal opinions," Mr. Wilder says.

As always, Mr. Wilder, who in 1992 sought the Democratic presidential nomination before dropping out, likes to keep Virginians guessing.

"I could change it from a talk show to a commentary on issues," he says of his weekly radio show on WRVA-AM, "but that might be worse."

Mr. Wilder, Virginia's governor from 1990 to 1994, will preside over a campus of gothic, Victorian granite buildings from his plush office in the $7.5 million L. Douglas Wilder Library and Resource Center, which opened in January 1997.

The library was built upon "the dust bowl," a field where Mr. Wilder played touch football half a century ago.

"Virginia Union made it possible for me to get a quality education," Mr. Wilder says. "I could not have afforded to go to another school.

"I can still speak German pretty well," he adds. "I learned that here 50 years ago."

Mr. Wilder, who grew up in a segregated Richmond, graduated from Virginia Union in 1951 with a degree in chemistry. …