DATE: Sunday, September 21, 1997            TAG: 9709210093

SECTION: FRONT                   PAGE: A1   EDITION: FINAL 


                                            LENGTH:  166 lines


Donald S. Beyer Jr. - philosopher, pianist and big-time car dealer - traces some of his yearning to become governor to a divine inspiration he received three years ago in church.

``There is this great song ... that has the refrain, `Is it I, Lord?' '' he recalls.

``When I first heard it, I said, `Uh-oh, are you talking to me? Do I have to leave home and wander eight years in the desert?' ''

``The way it works in my head is that I feel very confident I have been called to be a candidate for governor,'' he adds. ``I don't know if I have been called to be governor. I hope that I am. I am working as hard as I can to see that I am.''

How does the two-term Democratic lieutenant governor know he truly has been called?

``This feels so great that I'm sure,'' he says of his time in politics.

``And I'm good at it. If you enjoy something and you're good at it, then it must be a calling.

To many who watched Beyer run for lieutenant governor in 1993, the admission may seem surprising. Beyer assailed his Republican opponent, Michael P. Farris, an evangelical home schooling champion - as an extremist, constantly linking him to religious conservatives Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell. Farris accused Beyer of ``religious bigotry.''

Farris was appalled last week to learn about Beyer's divine calling to politics. ``I find it utterly hypocritical for him to feel that way about himself while he did everything in his power to ridicule someone else who had similar views of God,'' Farris said last week.

But what critics see as inconsistency in Beyer's character supporters say is evidence of an incredibly broad and complicated intellect that defies sound- bite descriptions. In the often black-and-white world of politics, Beyer, 47, is an elaborate quilt of greys whose pattern is not discernible to all beholders.

He is the car dealer on a social crusade. He is a quoter of Shakespeare and Malraux who cheers at NASCAR races. He is the dignified Suit and certified auto mechanic. He is the egghead with an engaging gift for gab.

Beyer is the politician who once changed his vote three times on the same bill in one day. He's the easy-going Capitol celebrity known for his hardball campaigns. He's the enigmatic candidate who criticized his opponent this year for offering to cut car taxes, then put forth a similar plan of his own.

The personal contrasts between Beyer and Republican nominee James S. Gilmore III couldn't be greater. Gilmore, a meat-and-potatoes Republican, says ``credibility and honesty'' are a major issue in the race.

``Don Beyer never really takes a stand,'' complains Mark A. Miner, Gilmore's spokesman. ``That's really not what leadership is about. A leader is someone who can make a decision and stick with it. That's what Jim Gilmore offers. When Jim gives his word, he keeps it.''

Beyer, a world traveler and inveterate reader of history and fiction, views Miner's definition of leadership as incredibly narrow.

``Does that mean that the British should still be charging the beaches at Gallipoli?'' he asks. ``Does that mean we should still be fighting for Massive Resistance?

``As a general principle for humanity, I don't think there's anything wrong with changing your mind if you've been enlightened. It would be a far worse thing to cling to a view you knew was wrong.''

A man with chiseled features and a self-deprecating sense of humor, Beyer at times seems striving to detach his soul from the earthly politics that embroil it.

``Elections are about differences,'' he says. ``That's unlike the nature of politics, where people must work together for what's possible. From a policy standpoint, that means never letting go of your core values: to be honest always, to be responsible always, to be caring always.

``The political cliches are not values,'' he adds, ``because the political cliches change all the time.''

Translated to policy, it means that Beyer - like Gilmore - is focused primarily on education and tax relief this fall. Gilmore, however, has been largely concerned with helping the middle class. Beyer is more directed at helping the neediest, maintaining that's where the greatest results can be accomplished.

Beyer says he's been remarkably consistent in following his core values. Changing his vote on an issue means honesty and open-mindedness. And Farris, he insists, was fair game.

``I never disputed the intensity or sincerity of Mike Farris' faith or that his calling was from a religious base,'' he says. ``I simply said let's look at his public policies. They were not mainstream policies. This was a guy who was against (mandatory) child immunizations.''

Critics marvel, however, over how Beyer's changes of heart often seem to suit his long-range political ambitions. For example:

After initially criticizing Gov. George F. Allen's popular plan to abolish parole, he sought to one-up Republicans in 1994 by proposing the plan be made retroactive to affect criminals already serving terms.

After initially lauding Republican efforts to cut taxes in 1995, he joined fellow Democrats in opposing a controversial plan put forth by Allen.

After criticizing Gilmore for offering a $1.6 billion plan to phase out personal property levies on most cars in Virginia over five years, Beyer came forth with his own $202 million-a-year proposal to give tax credits to low- and middle-wage individuals and families who pay the levy.

Beyer acknowledges that some of his motivation in proposing the tax credit was political. ``In order to govern effectively, first you have to win an election,'' he's told business leaders who have criticized Beyer for joining Gilmore in offering tax relief they say the state can't afford.

Asked recently if he could have won the election without proposing a competing plan, Beyer said: ``We concluded it was possible, maybe not probable.''

Beyer says his campaign is trying to offer a pragmatic balance between some business leaders' demands for more investment in schools and roads and the working families' desire for tax relief. ``When you choose a Utopian ideal at the expense of other Utopian ideals, what inevitably follows is the worst of all worlds,'' he explains.

Beyer's ideals sprang from a nourishing family that helped him overcome a childhood of physical problems. Most noticeable is a congenital defect that left his right hand with four fingers. But more influential to his development were two eyes that Beyer was unable to hold in a steady direction until surgery corrected the problem at age 13.

Unable to compete in sports, Beyer found that if he winked one eye, he had no trouble reading with the other. ``So I went with my strength, which was my academic ability and books, and it had two very positive impacts,'' he says. ``In school it gave me a leadership role and a way to understand who I was. I was the smart kid. And the other impact was the books. I always read, read, read and it filled my head with ideas, especially about heroism and courage and overcoming conflict.''

His career Army officer father, Donald Beyer Sr., encouraged him to develop his own talents. His mother, Nancy, a devout Catholic, insisted on church attendance and religious discussion. And perhaps just as important was his grandmother, Clara, one of the first women ever to graduate from the University of California at Berkeley and a high-ranking Labor Department official under Franklin Roosevelt. She strongly encouraged public service, and family members say Beyer always had a special relationship with her until she died in 1990.

Beyer, who came within 10 points of scoring a perfect 1600 on his college entrance exams, has always sought to test his limits. Despite his lack of a finger, he taught himself to play the piano. At Williams College in Massachusetts, he joined an Outward Bound program that required him to camp outdoors 26 straight days in the dead of winter.

``The physical part I don't remember as being so hard,'' he recalls. ``But the psychological expansion was incredible. . . . It showed me that most of us can do far more than we imagine if we remain relentlessly optimistic.''

Upon his graduation from Williams with an economics degree, a friend convinced Beyer to become a doctor. After nine months cramming science, he whisked through medical school entrance exams and was accepted in three places. That was 1974, the same year his father bought a Volvo dealership in Northern Virginia. Beyer worked there that summer as a truck driver and never left.

Today, Beyer co-owns that business plus a Land Rover dealership that combined for $42 million in sales last year. Beyer says he stresses a corporate culture of ``surprising and delighting'' every customer.

Beyer pledges to employ his businessman's training in long-term strategic planning in the governor's office. He sees himself as an inspirational leader and consensus builder. ``Being a good leader is like being a good father,'' he says. ``It's being affirmative, sustaining, caring and requiring self- discipline. It's setting an agenda, treating people with respect and admiration and setting very high expectations.''

Of course Beyer, the father of four, doesn't pretend to have all the answers, or even half of them. There are too many things in his own life that defy easy explanation: a sister who is retarded, an adopted son suffering mental illness, and the dissolution of a first marriage that sent him on a journey from his native Catholic church to an Episcopalian congregation.

But the calling remains clear.

``Much is expected from those to whom much has been given and so I've always felt that I have much to give back,'' he says.

``I am here to do more than have fun and try to make some money in the business. I want there to be a larger purpose to my life. And I have always expressed that as making the greatest positive difference on the lives of other people that I possibly can.'' ILLUSTRATION: Photo



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