George Allen shows a more cautious, humbler side

October 17, 2012

George Allen displays three totems on the top shelf of the bookcase in his Old Town Alexandria office. The bust of Thomas Jefferson is a natural; Allen’s first elective office three decades ago was Jefferson’s seat in the Virginia House of Delegates.

There’s a football, of course, an inevitable nod toward Allen’s father, the longtime Washington Redskins coach.

And then there’s the latest addition to the showcase: a shofar, the ram’s horn that Jews blow to signal the annual time of repentance.

Six years ago, then-U.S. Sen. Allen (R) — now in a tight race with former governor Timothy M. Kaine (D) to regain his seat — found himself portrayed in news reports and voters’ minds as a colossally insensitive brute, a senator who publicly slurred an Indian American man who was working for his opponent at a campaign event, calling him “macaca.”

After that, a torrent of reports about Allen’s past poisoned his campaign: As a young man in California, he wore a Confederate flag pin in his high school senior class photo; later, he displayed a Confederate flag in his home (part of a flag collection, he said) and a noose in his law office (Allen said it fit the room’s Western motif); associates said he had used racial slurs about black people, which Allen resolutely denied.

Then, during a debate with Democrat James Webb, a TV reporter asked Allen whether it was true that his mother’s family was Jewish. Allen reacted angrily, accusing the questioner of casting “aspersions.”

“My mother is French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her,” Allen responded. “I’ve been raised, and she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian.”

That was not true. Allen knew then (he’d learned it a month before) that his mother was indeed born and raised Jewish.

A few days later, after admitting that, Allen, feisty as ever, told an interviewer that despite his newfound Jewish heritage, “I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops.”

Allen, who was widely believed to be using the Senate race to launch a presidential run, lost by 9,000 votes among 2.4 million cast. It was his first defeat since his initial run, for Virginia’s House, in 1979.

Now, six years later, Allen points out the shofar to a visitor. There is no more denial. No more jokes. He has studied his family history, learned about his roots.

Quietly, he tells about the day he asked his mother, now 89, whether the rumors were true that she really wasn’t Anglican but had grown up Jewish in Tunisia. Henrietta “Etty” Allen wept as she agreed to tell him the truth, but only “if you swear on Pop-op’s head that you won’t tell anybody.”

George Felix Allen blushes tomato red as he speaks about his Jewish grandfather, Felix Lumbroso. The former governor stares at the floor and recalls his mother’s fear of exposing her children to the hatred and venom she had seen as a child in Nazi-occupied North Africa.

After Allen’s mother revealed the secret she’d kept from her husband and children for six decades, Etty Allen asked her son, “Do you still love me?”

Of course he did, and he told her so. And then she asked whether her friends would still like her if they found out.

“Oh, Mom,” he said. “Of course they love you. Why wouldn’t they?”

“No,” said his mother, “they tell Jewish jokes.” She shook with fear.

“So I felt I had to keep it secret,” Allen says. He acknowledged publicly what she’d told him only after a cascade of news reports made it clear that the truth would come out.

Now, Allen says, he regrets some things he said in that losing campaign. He says he has embraced his newfound heritage. He’s proud of the shofar, a gift from a Hasidic Jewish group he addressed last year.

At that meeting, he tried to blow the horn, a difficult task even for some rabbis. “I couldn’t get much of a sound out of it,” Allen says, but that night, “I had the best dreams.”

A more humble demeanor

The past six years have not exactly been a nightmare for George Allen, but for a man not given to introspection, this has been a tough time. It’s in his voice, more subdued now, even at campaign rallies. It’s in his demeanor, which friends and foes alike say has grown cautious, steering away from the backslapping and kidding of the happy warrior, the candidate Democrats as well as Republicans called one of the best retail politicians they’d ever seen.

“His energy would fill up a room,” says Virginia Tech communications professor Robert Denton, a close observer of Allen’s style for more than three decades. “This year, you don’t see the old George Allen — wearing funny hats, throwing the football, telling jokes. He’s self-editing now. You can see kind of a transformation, a genuine regret after a humbling experience.”

Flashes of the old Allen emerge as he seeks to recapture the seat he lost to Webb, the novelist and former Navy secretary who is not seeking reelection. But such moments occur almost exclusively off-camera. For example, at the Loudoun County Fair, where a farmer pumps Allen’s hand and asks him to “see if you can get our government straightened out.” The candidate, in Wranglers and a tennis shirt with the Redskins logo, draws himself up and exclaims, “That’s what I aim to do — get ’em off your back.”

Facing an opponent who had to be persuaded to run by some of the nation’s most prominent Democrats, Allen has had a relatively light campaign schedule this fall — in a 16-day stretch in late September, the candidate made 18 public appearances, well short of the 32 made by his peripatetic wife, Susan.

He still wears his trademark black cowboy boots — a signature accessory since his childhood fascination with the TV Western “Gunsmoke” — but his wad of tobacco is no longer omnipresent in his mouth, bellicose rhetoric has vanished from his repertoire, and his TV ads, accompanied by sweetly rippling piano riffs and images of Allen reading storybooks to children, are dominated by pleasant suburban women talking about his talent as a father and his passion for reaching across party lines.

The impulsive George Allen — the guy so excited the day his first child was born that he ran smack into the delivery room door, nearly knocking himself unconscious — has yielded to a combination of age, contemplation and harsh experience.

“First of all, he turned 60 this year,” says Chris LaCivita, a longtime Allen aide who managed his 2000 Senate campaign. “And no matter who you are, losing a race is a humbling experience. It’s going to have an impact on your political psyche.”

On the stump, there is a new soft side to Allen’s pitch. At a military retirement home near Fort Belvoir in Fairfax County, he forcefully argues that Virginia’s offshore oil and inland coal resources must be unleashed to create jobs. But when he thanks the veterans for their service in World War II, Allen does so sotto voce, with a gentle mention of his mother’s liberation in Tunisia and his grandfather’s incarceration by the Nazis.

And when a man asks whether Allen agrees that Republicans have become “a scary party,” too eager to change popular programs like Medicare and too quick to go to war, the candidate’s response is uncharacteristically measured: “I like to motivate and inspire people,” he says, calling for “civil engagement” on issues, then adding, “I don’t mean to scare anyone.”

The ‘macaca’ incident

The George Allen much of Virginia came to admire in the 1990s was combative yet charming, a sentinel for freedom with a twinkle in his eye and a sweetness to his boyish face.

His rhetoric could be aggressive — he famously urged Republicans at a 1994 gathering to “enjoy knocking [Democrats’] soft teeth down their whiny throats” — but his political instincts were keen: As governor, from 1994 to 1998, he connected with voters well beyond his conservative base by reforming welfare, abolishing parole and boosting education standards.

Voters promoted that George Allen to the U.S. Senate in 2000 because of that record and his likable blend of straight talk and country corn pone. Allen handily unseated then-Sen. Chuck Robb, portraying the Democrat as a tired liberal “more in tune with Vermont than with Virginia.”

In that campaign, Allen railed against gun control, enlisted actor and former NRA spokesman Charlton Heston to appear in his ads, made sure crowds noticed that he chewed tobacco, and held up Clarence Thomas as his idea of the optimal Supreme Court justice.

Allen greeted audiences with raspy cries of “Welcome, patriots!” or “Hello, insurgents!” but his down-home manner and skinflint habits — he could reel off locations of the cheapest gas stations in almost any county in Virginia — took some of the bite out of his conservative politics.

In that campaign, as through his career, Allen found ways to remold his image to fit changing times: As governor, he opposed a state holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and didn’t mention slavery in his Confederate History Month declarations. But as a senator, he sponsored an official apology for slavery, directed grants to historically black colleges and joined black leaders on pilgrimages to the South to study the civil-rights movement.

The Senate was nowhere near as satisfying for Allen as being governor had been; it was “too slow for me,” he said. But by 2006, Allen was showing up on lists of possible GOP presidential contenders for 2008. And with Webb, an inexperienced and reluctant campaigner, as his opponent, Allen’s reelection seemed assured.

Then came Aug. 11, a rally in the Southwest Virginia hamlet of Breaks near the Kentucky border. As usual, Webb had a tracker following the other guy’s campaign, videotaping speeches that could be mined for snippets to be used in political ads.

Allen pointed the audience’s attention to the volunteer tracker, S.R. Sidarth, an American of Indian descent. “This fella here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca or whatever his name is, he’s with my opponent,” Allen said. Grinning ear to ear, he faced Sidarth and said that Webb, “living inside the Beltway,” was “probably with a bunch of Hollywood movie moguls. Let’s give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”

The insult — “macaca” is a slur leveled at dark-skinned people and derived from the Portuguese word for female monkey — dominated the rest of the campaign.

Allen lost his Senate seat and any presidential hopes.

In Allen’s inner circle this year, the ’06 campaign is viewed as a disaster, a toxic combination of candidate mistakes, errant strategy, poor staffing, and arrogant, cocky attitudes.

In the Allen family, at home in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, six miles outside the Beltway, that annus horribilis seems less a failure of political calculation than a reckoning with who Allen is.

‘A renewal and a resolve’

No one would argue that Susan and George Allen have gone all Dr. Phil about the macaca incident or its painful aftermath. In some ways, their lives have not changed much at all.

Over the past six years, Allen got to spend a lot more time with the kids, cheering them on at sports events, driving cross-country with Forrest (at a Best Western in San Antonio, father and son were dazzled by breakfast waffles in the shape of Texas), traveling abroad with Susan.

Two of their three children are out of the house now — the eldest, Tyler, just out of college, is working in Arlington County at the distilled spirits industry’s nonprofit arm seeking to prevent alcohol abuse. Forrest is a senior at Hampden-Sydney, a private men’s college west of Richmond, and Brooke is a ninth-grader in the Fairfax public school system.

Allen wrote a book, lectured at colleges, joined corporate boards and worked for energy companies. (At nearly every campaign stop, he pledges to “unleash” Virginia’s coal and offshore oil, as well as push ahead with nuclear power.)

But even as it may have appeared that Allen was just waiting for the chance to get back into the Senate, the Allens insist that this path was not always clear.

Although The Washington Post requested an interview with Allen alone, the campaign insisted that a reporter meet with husband and wife together.

“I don’t like talking about myself,” George Allen says, staring at his boots. “I don’t like talking about these introspective things.”

After some silence, Susan Allen, a 52-year-old former cheerleader with a degree in marketing, jumps in, talking about how “we’ve grown stronger as a family” and how George is always learning. “I call him Mr. Adventure,” she says, a line she’s used for decades.

Discomfiting as it may be, Allen eventually opens up about the loss. “I’ve changed in a lot of ways,” he says. “Being out of office, you have a chance to reflect, and there’s a renewal and a resolve.”

Allen, a second-string quarterback at the University of Virginia, slips into the coach-speak he inherited from his father: “You get knocked down, you get back up.” He glances over at the wall, where some of Coach Allen’s famous sayings are mounted: “Keep fighting.” “Hit hard and good things will happen.”

“There are times when I use those great exhortations,” the son says. “However, I did learn that some of the things that are great for locker rooms are inappropriate for political discourse. That’s a wisdom I’ve garnered.”

George Allen talks about his mother, about how she finally told her stories about the Nazi occupation of Tunisia and how she hid from the Germans in the Roman ruins of Carthage. Allen’s fascination with battles of the past — riding through Virginia with him is like having a personal historian at your service — has been pointed homeward.

This immersion in newfound family lore — he and Susan have gone to lectures on the history of Jews in North Africa — has made him “more aware of anti-Semitism, racism, bigotry,” he says.

And that has deepened his belief that government’s purpose is to liberate individuals to reach their highest potential, an ideal he sees this country straying from.

“There is no business being conducted in Washington,” he says. “Nothing.”

‘Where’s that fighter?’

Everywhere Allen goes this time, people are watching, waiting for the gaffe. Even a joshing greeting to a reporter — an African American TV reporter took offense when Allen greeted him with “What position did you play?” when in fact the reporter didn’t play sports in college — becomes a reminder of the macaca moment.

In Allen’s first campaign in 1979, advisers made him change into wingtip shoes; after he lost, he pledged never again to cave to consultants. But some friends say he is clamping down on himself this year, that beyond his cowboy boots and his core belief in lower taxes and less regulation little remains from Allen’s freewheeling style of the past.

Allen visits the Eden Center, the Vietnamese shopping center in Falls Church, and the assembled business owners say he has been a consistent presence, with a consistent message of repentance, at events held by Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese groups in the past few years.

“He’s a totally different person this time,” says Quan Nguyen, a doctor active in Vietnamese human-rights groups. “Last time, he was nervous, tired, under pressure. We know he doesn’t discriminate.”

But Allen’s gentler style — he no longer calls government workers “federales” or tax collectors “buzzards” — leaves voters sensing that something’s missing.

“Where’s that fighter from past campaigns?” LaCivita wonders. “George is one of those guys who can’t fake anything. So if it’s happening, it’s an evolution based on his experience.”

At a meeting with elderly voters in Fairfax, a woman asks Allen how the country can become less dependent on foreign oil.

Mine more Virginia coal and drill offshore for oil, Allen says, and then he notes that Americans “waste too much energy and food and fuel.” Allen’s suggestion: paint rooftops white to reflect heat.

“I know some Republicans will make fun of me for this, but that’s simple and practical,” he says.

Afterwards, the woman says she’s glad Allen spoke about conservation and not just drilling. “Never heard him talk like that before,” she says.

Marc Fisher, a senior editor, writes about most anything. He’s been The Post’s enterprise editor, local columnist and Berlin bureau chief, and he’s covered politics, education, pop culture, and much else in three decades on the Metro, Style, National and Foreign desks.
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