George Allen Monkeys Around
Forget the presidential campaign. Can he still win his Senate race?
by Matthew Continetti
10/02/2006, Volume 012, Issue 03
Not long ago, George Felix Allen was among the three or four
Republicans most likely to win his party's 2008 presidential
nomination. He was a known quantity: Virginia governor, then U.S.
senator, a conservative with a pleasant demeanor, and a loyal
supporter of President Bush. He had attracted top campaign talent. His
campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, had guided John Thune to an upset
victory over Senate minority leader Tom Daschle in 2004, and was
widely expected to run Allen's presidential operation once his new
boss glided through to reelection. Prominent Republican operatives,
including Ed Gillespie and Mary Matalin, were backing Allen's
reelection. And Allen was a talented fundraiser with dependable
sources of cash.
It was easy to document Allen's political promise. Throughout 2005, a
National Journal "insiders' poll" named him the frontrunner for the
nomination. In August 2005, Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, wrote
in the Washingtonian that "inside the GOP, there's a sense that if you
put Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in a blender, the resulting
concoction would be George Allen." That November, National Review
editor Richard Lowry opined that Allen "perhaps has a better chance of
winning the nomination than any other Republican." This sentiment
carried over into the summer of 2006, when the American Spectator's
David Holman wrote that "a familiarity with George Allen explains his
presidential contender status: notable biography, solid political
record, and affable demeanor." Kathleen Antrim, a conservative
columnist who is working on a biography of Allen, told me she came up
with the idea for the book shortly after the 2004 election, when she
looked at the possible 2008 Republican presidential field and said,
"Who else could it be?"
As it turns out, a bunch of folks. In recent weeks, Allen has gone
from presidential contender to embattled senator. His mishandling of a
name-calling incident, and his ham-handed denial and subsequent
revelation that his mother was raised Jewish, have almost eliminated
him from the field of serious presidential candidates and even
jeopardized his Senate seat. While still trailing in the polls,
Allen's Democratic opponent, the author and former secretary of the
Navy James Webb, has pulled within striking distance. This reflects a
substantial swing in public opinion; until recently Allen's lead over
Webb was in double digits. Also until recently, a group of senior
Republican consultants met regularly to discuss Allen's strategy for
the upcoming presidential campaign. Today, those meetings are devoted
exclusively to helping the senator win reelection. Having just stepped
out upon the national stage, George Allen now finds himself in danger
of being shuffled off of it.
Allen was born in March 1952, in Whittier, California. His father,
George Herbert Allen, was the football coach at the local college.
(Richard Nixon is the school's most prominent alum.) Allen's mother
Etty was a French immigrant from Tunisia who had met George H. Allen
in 1950, during a trip to Sioux City, Iowa, where she was visiting
friends. When they met, George H. was head coach at Morningside
College. "She was introduced to me by the head of the speech
department," he told Washington Post reporters William Gildea and
Kenneth Turan for their 1972 book The Future is Now, "at a, what the
heck kind of thing was it, it was a play, a play at the community
theater." Soon after, George H. flew to Tunis to propose. They married
"I grew up in a football family," Sen. Allen likes to say. It was an
itinerant upbringing. From Whittier, the Allens moved to Los Angeles,
where George H. worked for one year as an offensive coach for the
Rams. From L.A., the family moved to the Chicago suburbs, where George
H. apprenticed under the legendary George Halas, the founder, owner,
coach, and onetime player for the Bears. From Chicago, it was back to
Los Angeles, where George H. became head coach for the Rams.
Eventually, the Allens would leave Los Angeles for Washington, where
George H. coached the Redskins.
Through all these family moves, football was the constant. It was the
family religion. At age four, George F. got his first football, the
modified kind typically used to train future quarterbacks. "It was at
least twice as heavy as normal," he told the Washington Post in 1981.
George F. was a natural quarterback. His senior year in high school,
he led the Palos Verdes team to a 7-2 season. He earned athletic
scholarships to UCLA and Princeton, opting for UCLA but only staying
there a year. When his family moved to Washington, Allen followed,
matriculating at the University of Virginia. He quarterbacked at UVA,
too, but he wasn't quite up to the college game.
The main source of information about Allen's youth is his sister
Jennifer, the youngest member of the family and the only daughter.
Jennifer Allen became a writer for the Washington Post and in 2000
published a memoir, Fifth Quarter, about her upbringing. "The best
book about football I've ever read," the novelist Pat Conroy blurbs in
the paperback edition. If that's true, then Conroy hasn't read many
football books. Fifth Quarter is mainly a catalogue of Jennifer
Allen's boyfriends, and an in-depth account of the author's
complicated feelings toward her father and her ambivalence about her
mother. There is nothing ambivalent about her feelings toward her
oldest brother: "I was so happy during the summer of 1969," she
writes. "My brother George was leaving home."
Fifth Quarter's early chapters focus on Jennifer's life as an
8-year-old in a testosterone-heavy household--featuring George as well
as brothers Greg and Bruce. Jennifer spent most of her time alone in
her walk-in closet, "my only quiet and private place in the house." It
is clear she lived in fear of her oldest brother George and his
friends, who "had the same pork-chop sideburns, greasy-haired scalps,
and almost the same broken-toothed look as the inmates on George's
favorite album, Johnny Cash, Live from Folsom Prison." In one
oft-quoted passage, Jennifer Allen writes:
We all obeyed George. If we didn't, we knew he would kill us.
Once, when Bruce refused to go to bed, George hurled him through a
sliding glass door. Another time, when Gregory refused to go to bed,
George tackled him and broke his collarbone. Another time, when I
refused to go to bed, George dragged me up the stairs by my hair.
George hoped someday to become a dentist. George said he saw dentistry
as a perfect profession--getting paid to make people suffer.
While no one disputes the facts contained in Fifth Quarter (George F.
vetted the manuscript before publication), such passages seem designed
to present an unflattering picture of the future senator. For one
thing, time is condensed; years might have passed between the episodes
described. For another, most people know that young siblings get into
fights. They say dumb things. And sometimes they accidentally hurt
each other badly. It is plain that George was a little wild growing
up. "Sen. Allen was a rambunctious kid," David Snepp, Allen's press
secretary, told me. "He probably gave heartburn to his mother."
In the early 1970s, while he was at UVA, Allen had little idea what
career path to follow. An undergraduate history major, he had no plans
to enter politics. "At the time I wanted to be an architect or a
lawyer," Allen told THE WEEKLY STANDARD's Fred Barnes earlier this
year. "All my ideas of what I wanted to do: lawyer, architect, also
possibly getting into ranching or farming. And the architecture, which
I still do like, just had too much mountain to it. And so I went to
During the summers, Allen worked on a ranch out West, where he
developed his affection for cowboy boots. Another habit, dipping
snuff, he acquired from hanging out at Chicago Bears training camps.
Allen says he had a youthful interest in politics. He supported
Goldwater in 1964, a position that puzzled his parents. Richard Nixon
was a friend of his father's from Whittier. And Ronald Reagan, as
governor of California, attended L.A. Rams practices, where he was
introduced to George F., then in high school.
In 1976, while studying law, Allen received an invitation from
conservative activist David Keene to become chair of Young Virginians
for Reagan. "They all knew I liked Reagan," Allen told Barnes. "They
said, 'You'll do fine, just tell people why you like Ronald Reagan.'"
Reagan won the Virginia primary that year, but went on to lose the
nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford. But the lessons and thrills of
Reagan's insurgent campaign stuck with the young volunteer. Allen was
slowly entering the world of electoral politics.
A year later, Allen graduated from the University of Virginia law
school. By this time, his family had made the decision to return to
California. Allen chose to stay in the Old Dominion. He had come to
love the commonwealth's history, its landscape, its people. "I was
going to go into a partnership with someone in Charlottesville in an
old building built in 1814," he told Barnes. "Mr. Jefferson played the
fiddle there, allegedly. I bought this old building." Soon after, his
prospective partner opted out of the arrangement. Allen was alone. He
renovated his new property himself. "I lived in it while renovating,"
he said. There was no shower. "I started my law practice and then
bought a log house out in the country, in the woods. Charlottesville
is where I wanted to take my stand."
His first stab at elected office--a campaign for a seat in the
Virginia House of Delegates--came in 1979. He lost. "In the midst of
it I played an alumni football game," Allen said in the interview. "I
was fine doing quarterback." The play called for an on-side kick. "I
did a running start." They were playing on astroturf. "One of these
mammoth varsity players cross-body-blocks," Allen continued. "My knee
gets swept around. I end up with an operation, a blood clot in my
calf, and I'm running for the House of Delegates. That's not why I
lost, but it was generally an all-around miserable year. I learned a
lot." Allen was also perturbed that his advisers "made me buy wingtips
and shiny belt buckles."
In 1982, in a special election, Allen made another attempt at the
House of Delegates. "I won by a whopping 25 votes," Allen said. He had
won Jefferson's seat. George H. was with him on Election Night. When
they learned he had won, the family cheered. "My father said, 'Gosh,
this is as good as beating Dallas!'" Allen has won every election since.
In early July 1991, Rep. French Slaughter announced his retirement
from Congress after three terms representing the Seventh District of
Virginia. Allen was the first person to announce his candidacy for the
seat. Slaughter's son also made a play, but withdrew after it became
clear he couldn't overtake the frontrunner. Allen won the Republican
nomination. The themes he articulated then would dominate his career
for a decade: "The issues in this race," he said, "are promoting the
work ethic through workfare instead of welfare, protecting law-abiding
citizens and victims instead of coddling criminals, fighting against
higher taxes and wasteful government spending, and looking out for
The Democrats nominated Kay Slaughter, a cousin of the retiring
congressman. The most contentious issue in the special election was
the Persian Gulf war, which Allen supported and Slaughter opposed.
Allen ran an ad that featured a photograph of Slaughter next to a
photograph from a Washington, D.C., antiwar protest in which activists
had held up a banner declaring "Victory to Iraq." Slaughter said the
ad was sleazy. She lost, 62 percent to 34 percent.
Allen was sworn in the next week. After the ceremony, he said, "I have
not come to be a member of a club, but rather to fight for the
taxpayers of Virginia. We need to cease class warfare and petty
partisan bickering to get this economy moving forward." About a week
later, however, state Democrats announced a gerrymander plan that
would erase Allen's district and force him into a primary against
Thomas Bliley, a Richmond Republican. Allen's career had reached an
impasse. One option was district-shopping, but he knew he was unlikely
to defeat Bliley or Frank Wolf, another popular Republican
congressman, in a primary election. At the end of his term, he
returned to private practice and prepared to run for governor.
Democrats had held the governor's office in Richmond throughout the
1980s. In 1993, in the contest to replace the popular L. Douglas
Wilder, the first African-American elected governor in the United
States, Allen faced Democratic attorney general Mary Sue Terry. He
started the race behind. It was a hard-fought, tough, and sometimes
abrasive campaign. Terry attacked Allen's position on abortion. He was
never the sort of conservative who placed values issues front and
center, and his stance on abortion was muddled. In a general election
debate, Terry said, "I'm pro-choice, and my opponent is
multiple-choice." In the same debate, Allen said that in the early
stages of a pregnancy, it is "a woman's election" to decide whether or
not to abort her child. Later, to the Washington Post, Allen described
his position as one of "reasonable moderation." That, along with
Allen's positions on crime, welfare, and education, appealed to
voters. He won, 58 percent to 41 percent.
There ought to be little argument that Allen was one of the most
successful governors of the 1990s. He abolished the parole system as
promised, signed into law a parental notification abortion statute,
and shepherded to passage a welfare reform plan that eliminated
benefits after two years on the dole. He signed into law the Standards
of Learning (SOL) education reforms, the model for President Bush's No
Child Left Behind act. Allen, who criticizes No Child Left Behind on
federalism grounds, likes to point out that the standards he
championed are far tougher than Bush's. The best evidence of Allen's
success as governor came in 1997, when Virginians elected his
handpicked successor, Attorney General James Gilmore, governor on a
Allen and his advisers considered a presidential run in 2000, but
decided against it, as George W. Bush appeared unstoppable. Instead
Allen ran for Senate, challenging the incumbent Democrat, former
governor Charles Robb. In this race, too, Allen started behind. And in
this race, too, he overtook the frontrunner and won. It is worth
noting, however, that Allen's margin of victory, for a man who had
spent two decades in Virginia politics, was not wildly impressive. He
ran even with Bush in 2000, beating Robb 52 percent to 48 percent.
Throughout his career, Allen has sought to govern by the principles of
what he calls "common-sense Jeffersonian conservatism." In March, when
I asked Allen what this meant, he said, "It means I trust free
people." As a symbol of Virginia's heritage, and as a model for
self-government, Jefferson has served as the touchstone for Allen's
politics. "I look at Reagan as a modern-day Thomas Jefferson," he told
me. Then, unprompted, he quoted from Jefferson's 1801 Inaugural
Address: "The sum of good government is a wise and frugal government
which shall restrain men from injuring one another but otherwise leave
them free to regulate their own pursuits of industry. And the
government shall not take from the mouths of laborers the bread
The Senate has frustrated Allen. He said it surprised him "how long it
takes for them"--his fellow senators-- "to get things done." He went
on, "They're the most collegial bunch of folks you'd ever want to
meet. I'd never seen more people take so much time to make a decision.
They need action."
Allen is less a skilled legislator than a talented executive. One day,
I asked his press secretary to name the senator's top three
accomplishments. The items he named seem thin branches from which to
hang a presidential bid. "First of all, he's kept the Internet free
from taxation," Snepp said. "Second, he was able to pass the
nanotechnology research and development act. And third, he's also very
proud of other technology initiatives," including legislation to
provide federal technology grants to historically black colleges and
universities. "And," Snepp added, "he's also been very proud in
supporting U.S. troops fighting the war on terrorism."
On the campaign trail, Allen's efforts to provide grants to
historically black institutions are mentioned whenever he is accused
of racial or ethnic insensitivity, which has happened twice so far in
2006. In its May 8 issue, the New Republic published a cover story,
entitled "Pin Prick," which argued that "before he runs for president,
George Allen has to run against himself." The article's author, Ryan
Lizza, reported extensively on Allen's apparent youthful interest in,
and seeming enthusiasm for, the Confederacy, which included hanging a
battle flag in his living room during his successful 1993 Virginia
gubernatorial bid (part of a collection, Allen says) and hanging what
appears to have been a noose in his law office (part of another
collection, Allen says).
Lizza also brought up Allen's past support for Confederacy history
month in Virginia; his 1984 vote against a state holiday for Martin
Luther King Jr.; the pick-up truck he drove in law school, which
featured a battle flag bumper sticker; and a Confederate-flag lapel
pin Allen appears to be wearing in a high-school yearbook photo. All
that, and Allen was a big fan of the country variety television show
Hee Haw, which ran on Saturday mornings when he was a teenager.
Among the chattering class, the article caused much discussion, and
from the senator's aides it sparked a vigorous counterattack. "I think
this is an example of a very liberal magazine searching desperately to
find something they can hang on Senator Allen," Snepp told me shortly
after the New Republic story appeared. One outside adviser called
Lizza's piece a "so-called" profile. Though no one seemed to dispute
the article's facts, the implication remained that "Pin Prick" was
nothing more than a recycled, partisan hatchet-job. And in this case,
the Allen campaign's response appears to have been effective. It
marshaled the evidence to show Allen was in no way a racist. In a
September 12 speech to the "Historically Black Colleges and
Universities Week Conference Luncheon," Allen elaborated on his "own
journey" to racial understanding.
"I grew up in a very different universe from most folks," Allen said
in the speech. "I grew up in a football family (with an immigrant
mother), and in football, your race, ethnicity, and religion do not
matter. What matters is how well you can punt, pass, kick, block, run,
or tackle. What matters is whether you can produce on a level playing
field, and help the team win! It is a true meritocracy, and that level
playing field is what America should aspire to be." Allen went on to
discuss his relationship with David "Deacon" Jones, the Hall of Fame
defensive end who played on his father's Rams and Redskins teams in
the 1960s and 70s. "What football, and my father, and Deacon Jones,
among others, taught me," Allen said, "is to treat people as
individuals and look at what is inside, not outside."
Every "personal journey" has a starting point. In the speech, Allen
never mentioned his, although one assumes it was his past ownership
and display of Confederate symbols. Those days, however, are long
behind him. Last week, one outside adviser sent me a seven-page white
paper of Allen's "African-American Accomplishments." These included,
as governor, "safer communities," "enterprise zones," an "urban
revitalization initiative," support for the Martin Luther King Jr.
holiday, support for Black History Month, appointing a "significant
number" of African Americans to state government posts, criticizing
discrimination against black farmers, funding the Virginia Slavery
Museum in Jamestown, "authoring a resolution" at the 1997 National
Governors' Association meeting condemning church burnings, welfare
reform, education reform, and support for hate crimes legislation. As
senator, Allen has, among other things, cosponsored a resolution
condemning the Senate for failing to pass anti-lynching legislation,
and hosted, along with Georgia Democratic congressman John Lewis, two
civil rights pilgrimages--one to Alabama, the other to Virginia.
All this may strike some as overcompensation, an overwhelming response
to a perceived political weakness. In any case, the response seems to
have worked. Most of the accusations leveled in the New Republic
article were ignored or dismissed. Allen's reputation--such as it
was--remained intact, and by summer his reelection to the Senate
Then he visited Breaks.
Breaks, Virginia, is in Dickinson County, in the southwestern part of
the commonwealth, near the Kentucky border. It is a small community,
and relatively poor. In 2000, according to the census, the county's
population was slightly more than 16,000 people, including 70
"hispanics" and 58 "blacks." The census calculated median household
income at $23,431 in 1999 dollars. Breaks is a beautiful, historic,
and conservative part of rural Virginia--the sort of place that led
George Allen to fall in love with the state three decades ago.
On August 11, as part of his annual "listening tour," Allen visited
Breaks and spoke to supporters at a local park. Among those observing
Allen deliver his stump speech was a "tracker" for the Webb campaign.
On the campaign trail, tracking is a common phenomenon. A low-level
staff member for the opposing candidate follows a politician around,
recording everything he or she says and does. For a long time,
trackers used pad and pen. Today, it is typical for them to film a
candidate with a video camera. That day, Allen decided to incorporate
Webb's tracker into his speech.
"My friends, we're going to run this campaign on positive, instructive
ideas," Allen said, as the videotape shows. "And it's important that
we motivate and inspire people for something."
He turned and pointed at the video camera.
"This fella here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca or whatever
his name is, he's with my opponent, he's following us around everywhere."
Someone in the crowd laughed, and Allen paused and smiled.
"And it's just great. We're going to places all over Virginia"--Allen
turned once more to the camera and pointed--"and he's having it on
film and it's great to have you here, and you show it to your
opponent." Presumably Allen meant "my" opponent. But the crowd got the
point. Someone clapped, and Allen continued: "Because he's never been
there and probably will never come." People cheered. "So it's good to
have you here," Allen went on--and here the tape is garbled because of
the cheers and applause--"rather than living inside the Beltway
or--his opponent actually right now is with a bunch of Hollywood movie
moguls." Laughter. "We care about fact, not fiction."
Allen turned back to the camera.
"So welcome. Let's give a welcome to macaca here. Welcome to America,
and the real world of Virginia." A pause. "Now my friends, we're in
the midst of a war on terror . . . "
"Macaca" was Shekar Ramanuja Sidarth, known by his surname, or "Sid"
for short, a 6-foot-4-inch tall 20-year-old student at the University
of Virginia who grew up in the northern Virginia suburb of Fairfax
County. Sidarth's father, a wealthy mortgage banker, immigrated to the
United States from India a quarter of a century ago. His mother came
shortly afterward. Growing up, Sidarth attended the Thomas Jefferson
High School for Science and Technology, a prestigious Fairfax County
magnet school, where he earned a 4.1 grade point average, a 1550 SAT
score, and participated in chess club and the Spanish Honor Society.
Sidarth, like Allen, played high-school football. He is a Democrat,
but his politics seem centrist. In addition to supporting Webb, he
contributed $2,000 to Joseph Lieberman's 2004 presidential campaign.
He is also curious. As Sidarth tells it, after the Breaks event he
sought out a dictionary and looked up "macaca," which he found refers
to a genus of monkey, and in certain cultures is used as an ethnic
slur. Offended, he circulated his video among some liberal bloggers.
In a few days the Washington Post got interested in the story. And
before he knew it, Allen had a scandal on his hands.
There are a variety of reasons Allen's encounter with Sidarth has
become the defining moment in his campaign. One is the increasingly
important role technology plays in fashioning our politics. Sidarth's
video gained an audience when he posted the "macaca" clip on YouTube,
an Internet video clearinghouse. It was a group of loosely affiliated
liberal bloggers who brought the video to the attention of traditional
reporters. And the video lends itself to television, where a viewer
can't help finding it strangely compelling: the absurdity of a
professional politician mocking a twenty-year-old campaign volunteer;
the goofy, triumphant grin on Allen's face as he welcomes "macaca" to
America; the casual, unknowing ease with which Allen moves from
committing a potentially career-ending gaffe to a canned discourse on
A second reason is the incredible amount of coverage the Washington
Post devoted to the controversy. According to the Lexis-Nexis research
database, prior to August 15, 2006, the only mention of "macaca" in
the Post occurred in a June 2003 "Travel" piece that mentioned the
famous monkeys of Gibraltar. Between August 15 and September 18,
however, the Post mentioned the "macaca" incident some 44 times.
During that time, "macaca" appeared in seven front-page (A1) news
articles. It appeared in six front-page "Metro" (B1) articles. It
appeared in no less than three editorials and one op-ed column. This
sort of coverage is what reporters mean when they say "flood the zone."
But a significant reason "macaca" took on a life of its own was the
Allen campaign's clumsy damage control. At first, the campaign ignored
the story, then it said the publicity devoted to it was evidence of
liberal media bias. The campaign said Allen might have been referring
to Sidarth's silly haircut, then said the senator had never heard the
word before. When asked in a recent televised debate whether, growing
up, he might have heard his mother say "macaca"--everyone seems to
think that in North Africa "macaca" is an everyday word--Allen said,
"I hope you're not trying to bring my mother into this matter," and
ignored the question.
What's more, Allen waited almost two weeks to apologize to Sidarth.
And every day an apology was left unsaid was a day the Post could run
an article with a headline akin to Allen Still Hasn't Apologized to
Victimized Young Adult. Now Allen finds himself doing little besides
apologizing. Indeed, in September, he apologized for macaca, the
Confederate flag, and everything else he's ever done that might be
construed as "insensitive." "The point is, symbols matter, they should
matter, and this is something that I wish I learned a lot earlier," he
said. "Even if your heart is pure, the things you say and do and the
symbols you use do matter because of the way others may take them."
And yet, whether on the part of Allen or his opponents, the rhetorical
linkage of the senator's past fascination with the Confederacy and his
singling out of Sidarth is misplaced. If Allen was guilty of anything
in the Breaks speech, it was being an oaf, not a racist. And even what
the incident showed about Allen's personality is not the most
important reason for the "macaca" scandal's long life. That reason is,
while Breaks might be the "real world," more and more of Virginia is
taking on the cultural, social, demographic, and economic conditions
of the parts of the state where S.R. Sidarth was born and raised.
Allen got into trouble not because of his appreciation for Virginia's
past. He got into trouble because he found himself at odds with
For much of its history, Virginia's politics have been turbulent and
unpredictable. But since 1968 a few trends have been clear.
Conservative Democrats dominated the commonwealth's politics for much
of the 20th century. The archetypal Virginia politician before '68 was
the governor and senator Harry F. Byrd, whose family ruled the state's
Democratic machine with a mixture of economic populism and racial
segregation. But in the 1968 presidential election, Virginia threw its
vote to Richard Nixon, and no Democrat has received its electoral
votes since. The next year, in 1969, A. Linwood Holton Jr. was elected
Virginia's first Republican governor since Reconstruction. A series of
Republicans followed in the 1970s, but in the 1980s, while Virginians
were voting for Ronald Reagan by substantial margins, they also
elected a series of conservative Democratic governors. And the
statehouse remained solidly Democratic.
In the 1990s, that partisan split broke down. Allen's election as
governor ushered in a new era of Republican dominance. In 1997,
Republicans won contests for governor, lieutenant governor, and
attorney general. In 1999, Republicans captured the House of Delegates
and the state senate. In 2000, with Allen's election to the Senate,
both of Virginia's U.S. senators became Republicans. By the turn of
the century, there was little doubt that Virginia was a Republican
state. Realignment had occurred.
Or had it? In 2001, cell phone magnate Mark Warner, a Democrat who had
lost narrowly to Sen. John Warner in 1996, won the governor's race.
Last year, he was followed by another Democrat, former lieutenant
governor Tim Kaine. In presidential and gubernatorial contests since
2000, the strongest GOP showing has been George W. Bush's 54 percent
of the vote in 2004. Virginia has reverted to its voting patterns of
the 1980s, electing Republican presidents and Democratic governors.
With one notable difference. Virginia is growing, and it is growing
into the sort of state--with high numbers of professionals,
immigrants, and singles--that tends to vote Democratic. If you look
closely at northern Virginia--the richest and most populous region of
the commonwealth--the changes are dramatic. In Fairfax County,
Republicans went from narrowly winning the presidential vote in 2000
(48.9 percent to 47.5 percent) to losing it in 2004 by a considerable
margin (46 percent to 53.3 percent). Democrat Mark Warner won Fairfax
County in 2001 (54.4 percent to 44.9 percent), but Democrat Tim Kaine
won it by an even bigger margin (60.2 percent to 37.9 percent) in 2005.
While inner suburbs like Fairfax County (and Arlington and Alexandria)
continue to trend Democratic, so too do Washington's exurbs. Prince
William County, south of the nation's capital, is filled with
Republican voters. At least, it used to be. Bush won there in 2000 and
won again in 2004. But Prince William voters have shifted their
gubernatorial votes. In 2001, they voted for Republican Mark Earley
52.4 percent to 46.8 percent. In 2005, though, they voted for Democrat
Tim Kaine, 50 percent to 48 percent.
Why? Census Bureau statistics suggest that Prince William County is
becoming more like Fairfax. Its population has increased. In this
period, Asian and Pacific Islanders living there have gone from 3.9
percent to 6.8 percent of the population, and Hispanics have gone from
9.7 percent to 18.1 percent--a huge jump. Prince William County, too,
is richer: Median household income was $65,960 in 1999 dollars in
2000. In 2005 it was $81,904.
The same pattern can be found in Loudoun County, west of Washington.
Bush won Loudoun in 2000 (56.2 percent to 40.9 percent), but in 2004
he won it while losing points (55.5 percent to Kerry's 43.4 percent).
Republicans' share of the gubernatorial vote in Loudoun has also
declined steadily. In 1993, Allen won 58.6 percent of the vote there.
In 2001, Mark Earley won the county with 52.9 percent. But in 2005
Republican Jerry Kilgore lost Loudoun, 46 percent to 51 percent.
Again, demographic changes play a role. The Census Bureau estimates
that Loudoun County experienced an amazing 50.7 percent growth in its
population between 2000 and 2005. During this time, the number of
Asian and Pacific Islanders grew from 5.4 percent to 11.6 percent of
the population, and the number of Hispanics grew from 5.9 percent to
As the exurbs become more like the inner suburbs--multiethnic,
professional, and rich--it is likely they will begin to vote like
them, too. And more of Virginia is coming to resemble its wealthy
north. Last week, in an email, the demographer William Frey, currently
a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me, "The flight
toward affordability is extending northern Virginia demographics
southward--in effect, shrinking the traditional base." Frey's analysis
supports that of John Judis and Ruy Teixeira, who write in The
Emerging Democratic Majority that "if these suburban"--and now
exurban--"voters keep increasing their proportion of the Virginia
vote, and if they continue to trend Democratic, they could very well
tilt Virginia back to the Democrats, even in presidential elections."
No doubt demographics are important. But candidates matter too. And a
few months ago, Allen was one of the most talented Republican
politicians around. Always smiling, upbeat, he seemed to have a
message designed to appeal equally to Virginia's rural and
technocratic voters. In March, I accompanied Allen to the Infineon
semiconductor fabrication facility outside Richmond. As we approached
the plant, Allen told me how, as governor, he was able to lure
investors to build the facility. Back then, Allen found himself in
competition with Ross Perot, who wanted the plant in Texas. Allen won.
He called the plant "my favorite monument in the Richmond area."
Allen is far wonkier than he appears. At the Infineon facility, his
speech was littered with references to "solar-voltaic" batteries and
"coal liquefaction" and "dynamic random access memory chips." He told
the audience, "We are falling behind in this country as far as
broadband access." There was a certain hokey charm in his delivery,
and most of the employees gathered in the Infineon cafeteria seemed to
respond well. Allen seemed a smart and harmless man who wanted to do
his best for his people.
Allen has put all his energy into his political recovery. On a recent
Saturday, post-"macaca," the Fairfax County Republican Committee held
its Third Annual Ethnic Community Campaign Kick-Off Rally in the
Edison High School auditorium in Alexandria. Outside the school, a few
protesters milled about. One wore a gorilla suit. This was Hunter
"Patch" Adams, M.D., the self-described "doctor/activist/clown" who
served as the inspiration for an eponymous 1998 Universal Studios
movie starring comedian Robin Williams. At more than six feet, with
half his pony-tailed hair dyed indigo, what looks like the jawbone of
a small mammal dangling from his left ear, and a gorilla mask nestled
in his furry arm, Adams is a striking figure. He is also angry.
As a fellow protester, Anna Banana, waved and smiled at the
Republicans entering the high school, Adams told me how the protest
came about. "We represent democracy," he said. "Racism is not a family
value. We wanted to address the history of Sen. Allen." The gorilla
costume, Adams added, was his idea. "I made it in 1971." It seemed to
fit the "macaca" moment.
"The most disturbing thing is that he chose to isolate a kid," said
another protester, from nearby Falls Church. Later, the activists' PR
guy, Bill, handed out a press release. It quotes Anna Banana as
saying, "Allen has a long history of racist attitudes and behavior."
You wouldn't have known that, though, from speaking to the people
inside the crowded auditorium, who made up an incredible collection of
hyphenated Americans. According to the event program, there were, in
alphabetical order, Afghans, Africans, Bolivians, Chinese, Colombians,
Cubans, Filipinos, Indians, Iranians, Koreans, Pakistanis, Peruvians,
Puerto Ricans, Salvadorans, Taiwanese, and Vietnamese--all waving
American flags, carrying balloons, and wearing buttons embossed with
the names of local Republican political figures.
A local party activist named Gary, a retired engineer who recently
returned from an overseas vacation, told me he paid no attention to
the protesters. Gary is white. Sen. Allen's verbal slip-up, he said,
was excusable, even understandable. "He felt too relaxed and slipped.
It came out the wrong way," Gary said. Then he paused and smiled.
"Sometimes I get into trouble like that, too."
Onstage, Puneet Ahluwalia, a northern Virginia businessman, introduced
Allen, who launched into a cheerful and enthusiastic mangling of
greetings in the native languages of those assembled, racing through
each phrase, stumbling over diphthongs and glottal stops, and barely
pausing to acknowledge the audience members, who laughed, yelled out
corrections, and cheered. It was a pleasant scene: a run-down school
auditorium filled with delighted Americans, young and old, and a
veteran politician who still was smiling. And here, for the moment, no
one had any questions about Allen, race, or ethnicity, and the
protesters outside might as well have been a thousand miles away.
Then the moment passed. On September 17, Allen debated Webb on NBC's
Meet the Press. The consensus among Washington Republicans was that
Allen lost the debate soundly. Dean Barnett, a conservative blogger,
wrote on radio talk show host Hugh Hewitt's website that, "for
conservatives wishing for Allen to retain his seat, their best hope is
that Virginians were otherwise occupied this morning or that the
state's NBC outlets were having technical difficulties." Allen's
positions were muddled. He refused to say whether he supported the
president's or Sen. McCain's stance on terrorist interrogations. He
refused to say whether he would serve a full term if reelected to the
The next day, Allen and Webb debated again, this time in front of a
paying Fairfax County Chamber of Commerce audience at the McLean
Hilton. Among conservatives, the conventional wisdom is that Allen won
this second debate, but that since it took place in the middle of a
weekday, he will be unable to reap the benefits of victory. This is
wrong. While Allen might have had a good showing substantively, the
story that emerged from the debate was his irate reaction to WUSA-9
television reporter Peggy Fox's question on a recent report in the
Forward that he might have been descended, on his mother's side, from
the Lumbroso family of Sephardic Jews.
Fox embarrassed herself by asking the question as though she were the
grand inquisitor at a show trial. But Allen embarrassed himself too,
first by standing there, agape, staring at Fox for asking the
question, then by refusing to answer it. Worse, Allen lied. He told
Fox, "My mother's French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her.
And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian."
It turns out, of course, that the report in the Forward was accurate;
by the end of the week, Allen had admitted that his mother informed
him in late August that she was raised a Jew. Etty Allen said that she
had asked her son to keep her heritage secret, which might have led to
his dissembling at the Chamber of Commerce debate.
Still, Allen's move to embrace this newly uncovered part of his
heritage has been flawed. He clumsily joked to the Richmond
Times-Dispatch that his mother's Judaism is "just an interesting
nuance to my background" and "I still had a ham sandwich for lunch.
And my mother made great pork chops." His campaign quickly accused
Webb supporters of anti-Semitism for posting video on weblogs of
Allen's reaction at the McLean Hilton debate. But this attack was
silly. Webb's supporters weren't criticizing Allen for his heritage;
they were publicizing his fumbling attempt to cover it up. As this
goes to press, the issue shows no sign of disappearing.
In recent days Allen has been recast as a sort of bumbling phony,
confused about his identity and his message. His encounter with S.R.
Sidarth and his campaign's lame response tripped him up, but that was
only the beginning. Steve Jarding, a Democratic consultant and adviser
to Webb, said that what hurt Allen most about "macaca" was that it
subverted his image as a likable guy. "Ninety percent of Virginians
are aware of that tape, according to our polling," Jarding told me.
"It cast a doubt on everything George Allen built up over 25 years."
In the past, one of Allen's strengths was his forthrightness and
consistency. "He's just authentic," Mary Matalin told me earlier this
year. "We're in the era of authenticity. He's serious, but he's
comfortable. He doesn't get rattled. He doesn't tap dance." Matalin
might have been right at the time, but not anymore.
Allen's advisers still believe the dynamics of this race favor the
incumbent. They say his long record in Virginia helps quell any new
questions or doubts about his competence. And they are changing
strategy. The campaign has gone negative sooner than expected, running
attack ads on Webb's views on, among other things, women in the
military (some of which he expressed in these pages). "I think that
what we're starting to get is a sense of the core of James Webb,"
campaign manager Wadhams told me last week. "And it's not pretty."
In the coming weeks, Allen expects to introduce new policies, hoping
to change the conversation, directing the debate toward domestic and
economic issues on which Webb is weak. And Allen has the money--some
$12 million, dwarfing the $1.1 million Webb raised through June 30--to
ensure a presence on radio and television.
Webb adviser Jarding says the race will come down to money, and that
if the Democrat raises enough to reach near parity with Allen on the
air, he will win. In the race this is becoming, however, money may be
less important than usual. So far, free media have dominated the
campaign--the stories on macaca, the Lumbrosos, and so on--and this
will only continue if Allen keeps performing as badly as he has in
recent weeks. If nothing changes, November 7 is sure to be the
defining test of Allen's three-decade-long political career. If he
fails, it will be only partly because the Virginia that captured his
heart as a young man is slowly vanishing. Mainly it will be because of
Matthew Continetti is associate editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.