Sen. George Allen of Virginia was born in Southern California, is the son of a former football legend, and is a political conservative. He’s strong on national defense, favors tax cuts, and, as a former governor, has a record of being tough on crime. He is also a budding GOP presidential candidate who has been considered a top contender for the top job.
But while campaigning for re-election to the Senate recently, Mr. Allen stumbled to reveal a weakness that could keep him from a spot on the national ticket. At a stop near the Kentucky border, Mr. Allen poked fun at S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old Virginia native of Indian descent who was there to gather opposition research for Democratic challenger Jim Webb. “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is,” Mr. Allen said, “he’s with my opponent.” The senator then went on to welcome the man to “real America.”
Mr. Allen’s comments drew a laugh from the crowd and criticism in the national media. The Washington Post pointed out that Macaca is a genus of monkey, and that in parts of Europe the word is used as a derisive term for African immigrants. This led to accusations of racism. National Review editor Rich Lowry, apparently hoping to cool the criticism, called the senator’s comments simply “mean.”
Neither criticism fits. Mr. Allen’s problem is neither that he is a vicious campaigner nor that he is a modern-day George Wallace. Rather, it is that for more than two decades in state and federal office, he has displayed a dismaying indifference to his adoptive state’s racial history. And it is this political tone-deafness that is now weighing down his political future with Southern baggage.
In his defense, Mr. Allen is now pointing to his political record that includes pushing legislation to apologize for the Senate’s failure to enact national antilynching laws in the early 20th century. As governor, he supported increasing funding to historically black colleges.
But his political record also contains less flattering details. As a state legislator in the 1980s, Mr. Allen opposed making Martin Luther King’s birthday a state holiday. While running for governor in 1993 he admitted that he had displayed a Confederate flag in his living room as part of a “flag collection.” Mr. Allen was also found to have a noose hanging from a ficus tree in his personal law office, something he called part of a “Western motif.” And while serving as governor Mr. Allen proclaimed April as Confederate Heritage Month. These are not the actions of a politician who understands legitimate sensitivities over his state’s racial history—a history that includes slavery, Jim Crow and, more recently, resisting integration of its public schools in the late 1950s. Nor are they the actions of a politician who is working fastidiously to overcome this history.
Richmond—Sen. George Allen on Tuesday sought to contain the political damage from remarks he made to a Fairfax County man that dredged up charges of racial insensitivity—allegations that have dogged him for years as governor, senator and now presidential hopeful.
Despite a quick apology Monday, criticism poured in about Allen’s use of the word “Macaca” to address a volunteer for the campaign of his Democratic opponent, James Webb, and also about another Allen comment, “Welcome to America.” Democrats, left-wing bloggers and civil rights groups called him “insensitive” and “racist,” while some conservatives called him “foolish” and “mean.”
The question was fiercely debated all day: Was “Macaca,” which literally means a genus of monkey, a deliberate racist epithet or a weird ad-libbed word with no meaning? And what was Allen trying to say by singling out the young man of Indian descent?
Allen’s defenders rushed to his side, saying the comments, though careless, do not reflect what is inside the senator’s heart. Sudhakar Shenoy, an Indian business executive from Fairfax who has known Allen for years, said he “has been an incredible friend to Indians” and is not a racist. “I’d stake everything I have that George is not that kind of a guy,” Shenoy said.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Allen (R-Va.) said his remarks Friday to S.R. Sidarth, who at the time was videotaping an Allen campaign event on Webb’s behalf, “have been greatly misunderstood by members of the media.” He said Monday that “Macaca” was a play on “Mohawk,” a nickname given to Sidarth by the Allen campaign because of his hairstyle. In Tuesday’s statement, Allen said he “made up a nickname for the cameraman, which was in no way intended to be racially derogatory. Any insinuations to the contrary are completely false.”
The comments were made at a campaign stop in the southwestern Virginia town of Breaks, where Allen spoke to about 100 supporters. Moments after greeting the crowd, Allen repeatedly pointed at Sidarth, called him “Macaca, or whatever his name is” and went on to say, “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia,” as the crowd laughed.
With the video of Allen’s remarks available around the globe via Youtube.com and other Web sites, the Virginia controversy became one of the most blogged-about topics on the Internet, according to the Technorati Web site, which tracks entries on 51.3 million blogs.
During the past two years, as Allen has flirted with the idea of running for president in 2008, he has introduced symbolic anti-lynching legislation in the Senate and promised to lead the charge for an official apology for slavery. Political pundits who follow Allen closely said the new comments threaten that well-planned effort.
“There are very few issues in American politics that are more sensitive than race. Senator Allen has just plunked himself down in the middle of it,” said Geoffrey D. Garin, a leading Democratic pollster. “Allen’s comments take him back to a place he was trying to escape from.”
Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., said it was “simply impossible to believe” that Allen did not intend the comments as a racial insult.
“To me, it looks like yet another case of a politician pandering to the worst instincts in an all-white crowd,” Potok said.
Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, wrote on the magazine’s Web site Tuesday that he did not think Allen was “trying to speak a coded racist language.” But Lowry said Allen showed he “has a mean streak.”