Yes, that Virginia gubernatorial candidate has layers

Yes, that Virginia gubernatorial candidate has layers October 17, 2013

In one of my favorite scenes in the original  “Shrek” movie, the title character explains to Donkey that “there’s a lot more to ogres than people think.”

“Example?” Donkey responds.

“Example … uh … ogres are like onions,” Shrek says, holding up an onion that Donkey sniffs.

More of the dialogue:

Donkey: “They stink?”

Shrek: “Yes. … No!”

Donkey: “Oh, they make you cry?”

Shrek: “No!”

Donkey: “Oh, you leave ‘em out in the sun, they get all brown, start sproutin’ little white hairs.”

Shrek (peeling an onion): “No! Layers. Onions have layers. Ogres have layers. Onions have layers. You get it? We both have layers.”

I’ve used this analogy before, but too many newspaper stories lack layers. The main characters are 100 percent heroic or totally villainous. They are cardboard cutouts, fitting an easy storyline. Unlike onions (and ogres), they don’t have layers.

But Ken Cuccinelli II, the Republican candidate for Virginia governor, certainly has layers, as portrayed this week in a 3,000-word, front-page profile by the Washington Post. 

I was impressed by the newspaper’s effort to get religion — to see Cuccinelli’s personal actions and political positions through the lens of his Catholic upbringing and experiences:

Gonzaga, the Jesuit high school in a scruffy part of Washington’s inner city, is where Ken Cuccinelli II says he became the man he is. The Republican candidate for governor of Virginia emerged in part in John Hoffman’s social justice class in 1986, when the teacher pressed the boys to look beyond the facts of poverty and inequality and examine the structures that shape people’s lives.

Cuccinelli came into that classroom as a kid from the suburbs who showed great spirit — he was the guy inside the school’s eagle mascot costume — and had a bit of a temper, but he was nobody’s idea of a rebel.

His parents had insisted that he leave the Fairfax County public schools and commute from McLean to the private Catholic school because, as his father put it, “Fairfax is not the real world.”

At Gonzaga, Cuccinelli would be with boys of different races and classes, guys from Anacostia on scholarship and kids from Chevy Chase who’d never known hardship.

Now, a liberal teacher with a beard so long the boys called him “ZZ Hoffman” assigned them readings by Karl Marx and asked them to imagine how society might be different if the world were constructed of, say, Nerf.

Suddenly, ideas could be as exciting as football. The boy who would become a state senator and Virginia’s attorney general embraced his church’s strict rules about right and wrong, and also absorbed a responsibility for those in need.

After a second telling anecdote — this one from the candidate’s time at the University of Virginia — the Post notes:

A quarter-century after those formative chapters in Cuccinelli’s life, those who watched him closely find him a more complex and thoughtful figure than the caricature of a hard-line social conservative might allow. But of those interviewed for this article, none said they would vote for him.

The Post provides this background on the faith of the candidate’s parents:

The Cuccinellis were Catholic to the core, but the parents did not always agree on politics. Ken’s mother sometimes sided with Democrats, and both parents called themselves independents, at least until Ronald Reagan came along. Ken voted and worked for Doug Wilder, the Democrat who was governor from 1990 to 1994, before turning solidly Republican.

The family’s devotion to faith and free enterprise — Ken’s father came to Washington to represent the American Gas Association — put them between the two parties: “We raised our children to understand that as good citizens, they needed to be as self-sufficient as their potential allowed them to be,” Maribeth says. “But as a matter of faith, care of the poor, of your neighbors, was always very conscious and upfront. If someone is starving, you want to bring him a meal, not a book on how to cook.”

Above all, Cuccinelli’s parents taught, when you knew what was right, you were obliged to act accordingly. As his mother puts it, “we raised the boys to believe that character means doing the right thing, especially when it isn’t popular.”

I don’t live in Virginia and haven’t followed the gubernatorial race there, so I can’t vouch for how accurately — and in context — the story presented the political issues at play.

But kudos to the Post for recognizing and reporting on the strong role of religion in Cuccinelli’s life.

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