The shape of our modern politics: Around Christmas of (maybe) 2005, we had our second brush with greatness with George Allen.
We were appearing as a guest on the Washington Redskins’ weekly local cable show. Then-senator Allen was appearing on the same show.
The show was broadcast live from a bar. The “green room” was a four-seater booth into which we found ourselves crammed next to a player's wife, sitting opposite Senator Allen. Small talk produced an extended statement by Allen concerning the greatest aspect of sports—the fact that it’s all about merit:
In sports, no one cares about anyone’s race, Allen said. They only care about your ability to produce. He said this was the lesson he had learned from being the son of a coach.
This was and is a standard presentation by Allen. In this post, Amanda Terkel records a bit of the same rumination from 2009. Allen discussed the same idea in his book in 2010.
We’ll guess this was 2005, though it may have been as early as Christmas 2003. At any rate, Allen ran for re-election in 2006. In this morning’s New York Times, Michael Shear described the arc of that (losing) campaign.
As best we can recall, nothing Shear said is actually “wrong,” though some of it may be a bit selective or unfair. But we were struck by the outline of our modern politics. We’ll highlight the points which struck us:
SHEAR (6/14/12): Mr. Allen was once a national star in the Republican Party with White House ambitions. But he became the political victim of a viral Internet video when, at a campaign stop, he called a young man of Indian descent a “macaca,” a term that can refer to monkeys. Mr. Webb’s campaign eagerly pointed out the remark, and the furor over what Mr. Allen meant lasted for weeks.Allen lost the race. Even Webb’s remark about his own college days wasn’t enough to save Allen!
Mr. Allen and his team fumbled the response, alternately accusing the media of a witch hunt and apologizing for any offense. Longtime supporters stuck by him, but had long since given the maximum they could contribute for Mr. Allen’s presidential hopes. His fund-raising dried up amid questions about ethnic insensitivities.
But while the political history of Mr. Allen’s 2006 loss is often attributed simply to that one phrase, it was much more than that.
Questions about Mr. Allen’s relationship to the black community were given new life by the controversy over his remarks. Stories about the Confederate flag he embraced in high school were written again. He once again had to defend the noose he had displayed in his law office—a Western lasso, he said, not a hateful symbol.
Even more damaging were accusations—suddenly public—that Mr. Allen had used racial epithets against African-Americans while he was in college. At one point, Mr. Allen gathered a group of African-American ministers behind him for a news conference at which he angrily denied using the epithets.
And in the midst of it all was the odd revelation of Mr. Allen’s Jewish heritage, the knowledge of which Mr. Allen discovered from his elderly mother after reporters pressed for more information about his background.
Asked about his Jewish ancestry at a debate, Mr. Allen angrily accused the reporter of “making aspersions.” But a few days earlier, his mother had finally revealed the truth she had been hiding from her children for decades: that she was brought up Jewish in North Africa after World War II and hid the fact when she moved back to the United States.
“We sat across the table and he said, ‘Mom, there’s a rumor that Pop-pop and Mom-mom were Jewish and so were you,’” Henrietta Allen recalled her son asking. Having received her answer, Mr. Allen later issued a statement acknowledging and embracing his Jewish roots.
Mr. Allen’s campaign against Mr. Webb hit back, running ads about an article titled “Women Can’t Fight,” that Mr. Webb had written about his days at the Naval Academy. In one passage, Mr. Webb had recalled his dorms there as “a horny woman’s dream.”
But it was not enough for Mr. Allen, who lost that year by about 9,000 votes out of about 2.3 million cast.
Different people will think different things about that 2006 campaign. Beyond that, we have no way of knowing what Allen’s racial attitudes may be. But reading Shear’s account of that campaign, we were struck by the total absence of any substantive policy topic. According to Shear, the campaign was about something Allen did in high school. It was also about something Allen allegedly did in college. Fighting back, the Allen campaign asked voters to consider Webb’s account of his own college days.
Plus, it turned out that Allen’s mother had been brought up Jewish! According to Shear's account, reporters had "pressed" Allen "for more information about his background."
What’s Allen like on the subject of race? We can’t tell you. But what does he think about anything else? Our politics has largely ceased to concern itself with such matters. In part, this is because our side doesn’t know how to discuss major substantive topics, at least not in a way anyone will listen to. In part for that reason, the worst nominee in American history is running quite close to Obama, poised to take over the White House.
As we liberals try to defeat him, we've spent a fair amount of time talking about things he did in high school or while he was in college.
As far as we know, nothing Shear wrote today is “wrong.” Reading his piece, we were struck by the shape of our politics.
Update: Will Allen beat Tim Kaine and return to the senate? It's certainly possible! Talk of his high school days may lose its bite. And our side still doesn't know how to discuss his party's deeply horrible politics.