In case you haven’t been paying attention, here are a few things that Virginia’s Republican Senator George Allen has done over the past few weeks: held an “Ethnic Rally,” where he met with constituents of every available race, creed and color; delivered remarks at a National Historically Black Colleges and Universities luncheon, where he discussed how his recent “civil rights pilgrimages to the deep South” had given him a “much deeper understanding of [the South’s] cold-hearted history”; prominently touted the endorsement of State Sen. Benjamin J. Lambert, a black Democrat, on his website; and released a statement embracing his Jewish heritage.
If you’ve been on an extended, TV-and-cell-phone-free camping expedition, this probably all comes as quite a shock. This is, after all, the same George Allen who reportedly hung a noose from a ficus tree in his Charlottesville law office and prominently displayed a Confederate flag in a cabin near his Earlysville home (it was part of a “collection of flags,” he claimed—although The Daily Progress’ Bob Gibson quoted a pair of officials who recalled only two flags: “a Confederate flag and, on an opposite wall, an American flag”). In addition, as a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Allen opposed a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King and, after being elected governor in 1993, proclaimed April to be Confederate History and Heritage Month, honoring the Confederacy’s “four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights.”
But all of that was before Senator Allen, feeling his oats at an early-August outdoor rally in Breaks, Virginia, delivered a single off-the-cuff remark directly into the video camera of S.R. Sidarth, a UVA student of Indian descent who was taping the rally for Allen’s opponent, Democrat James Webb.
There are, basically, three campaign missteps a politician seeks to avoid at all costs. The first is caused by organizational failure—usually when the campaign team throws their candidate into a situation that produces images of a highly embarrassing nature. (Remember Michael Dukakis tooling around in a giant tank, his tiny little head swallowed up by his big-boy’s helmet?) The second involves a verbal gaffe or display of weakness, usually spawned by the rigors of nonstop campaigning. Democratic hopeful Ed Muskie’s tearful ‘72 speech defending himself against charges of racism and John Kerry’s forehead-slapping “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” sound bite are prime examples of what can go wrong when emotion and exhaustion overtakes a candidate’s common sense.
But the third type of blunder can be the most damaging of all. It comes about when an apparently lucid, completely unscripted candidate blurts out something so wrongheaded and offensive, even their most ardent backers are at a loss to explain it. From Jesse Jackson calling New York “Hymietown” in an ’84 interview to Senator Trent Lott proclaiming that, had segregationist Strom Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign been successful, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years,” pols have repeatedly found this particular strain of foot-in-mouth disease to be politically deadly.
Which is why the campaign of Senator George Allen is in such a frenzy to quash the ongoing controversy created by his extemporaneous remarks on that August day.
“This fellow over here with the yellow shirt,” the senator began, smiling generously, “Macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great.” After pointing out that Webb was currently in California, attending a fundraiser with a “bunch of Hollywood movie moguls,” Allen once again addressed Sidarth directly: “Let’s give a welcome to Macaca, here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia.” As has been repeatedly noted since the tape became public, Sidarth was born and raised in Fairfax County, and his parents currently live in Dunn Loring.
If a gaffe is, as Michael Kinsley famously defined it, “when a politician tells the truth,” this one was a doozy. Despite Allen’s repeated denials (“It’s just made up… a made-up word,” he recently insisted on “Meet the Press,” and has claimed that he was simply riffing on the word “mohawk,” because of Sidarth’s mullet-like haircut), his pointed use of the same word twice lead many to suspect that he knew exactly what he was saying.
But what was he saying, exactly? Well, “Macaca” is French, derived from the Portuguese “macaco,” and refers to a genus of short-tailed monkeys. Its plural, “macaque,” is also used as a racially charged insult in French-influenced African nations, such as Tunisia. As has also been widely reported, Allen’s mother, Etty, was raised in Tunisia, and spoke five languages, including French, around the Allen household—a fact that Allen has mentioned repeatedly.
And, as it turns out, the slur is not nearly as rare or obscure as the Allen campaign might claim. Sidarth himself, in an online interview at ABDCLady.com, says that it wasn’t his first exposure to the term. “I’d heard it when I was studying in Spain last fall,” he told the site. “Not directed towards me, but I’d heard the term used.” In addition, Jeffrey Feldman—who publishes his “frameshop” diaries on left-wing blog Daily Kos—has found numerous instances of the word “macaque” being used by white supremacists to refer disparagingly to African-Americans on hate sites like stormfront.org, years before the current controversy erupted.
And this is where the Allen tale really goes off the rails. When, at a recent Tyson’s Corner debate, Allen was asked by WUSA TV reporter Peggy Fox whether he could have possibly heard the term growing up, he bristled. When Fox followed up by asking about his mother’s religious heritage (Allen’s Jewish grandfather, Felix Lumbroso, was imprisoned by the Nazis during the German occupation of Tunis), he positively seethed. “Why is that relevant?” he shot back. When Fox answered, “Honesty, that’s all,” Allen mocked her savagely. “Oh, that’s all? That’s just all?”
As it turned out, that was just all. Although Allen claimed ignorance (“…she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian”), the following Thursday’s Washington Post reported that his mother had actually revealed her Jewish heritage to him in late August.
By this point, George Allen’s story has become so convoluted and incoherent, it seems like his tobacco-chewin’ good ol’ boy persona might be damaged beyond repair. While he continues to try to joke his way through the political thicket (speaking with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Allen called his Jewish roots “just an interesting nuance to my background,” and quipped, “I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops”), most folks aren’t laughing.
In fact, it’s no longer just the ill-advised use of a single, obscure racial epithet that Allen has to worry about. Yes, his “Macaca” jab was damaging, but it’s all of the subsequent fumbling and mistruths that may finally push Allen’s carefully calibrated political angle of repose past its tipping point, and drop Virginia’s once-invincible senator—and highly touted 2008 presidential hopeful—into the political scrap heap.—Dan Catalano