Analyzing a Downfall

Claude Allen near a photo of the president while moving into his White House office.
Claude Allen near a photo of the president while moving into his White House office. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 24, 2006

I have to admit that when Claude Allen was arrested a couple of weeks ago for allegedly stealing merchandise from discount stores, my first reaction was pure schadenfreude. Until his resignation last month for the standard Washington non-reason -- to spend more time with his family -- Allen had been the highest-ranking African American on the White House staff, the president's top domestic policy adviser. I think it was "Saturday Night Live" that first came out with the obvious joke: Who knew that George W. Bush had a domestic policy adviser?

Would it be fair to cheer Allen's downfall just because he held a highly visible post in an administration that is reviled by most African Americans? No, but there's more: He made his name in black conservative circles by serving as a top aide to Jesse Helms, the old buzzard from North Carolina. I can't say anything else about Helms that's suitable for a family newspaper, so I'll just quote my colleague David S. Broder, who once called him "the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country."

Helms, you will recall, railed against a federal holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. at a time when even old Strom Thurmond had gone over to the other side. Allen later said that was a "difficult" period in his association with Helms, but apparently not too difficult.

As if that weren't enough, during a bitter 1984 campaign Allen was caught spreading smarmy innuendo about Helms's opponent, Gov. James Hunt Jr., whispering to a reporter that Hunt was vulnerable because of links "with the queers."

So, yes, when Allen was arrested on felony theft charges, my first reaction was smug satisfaction. But then I told myself: Don't hate. The proper reaction is pity, on every level.

Police allege that on several occasions, Allen did the following: He went into a Target store near his home in the Maryland suburbs and bought some merchandise, then went to another Target, loaded a Target shopping bag with identical items and used the receipt from the first store to "return" the items for a refund -- in effect, getting a bunch of stuff for nothing.

The most expensive item Allen is alleged to have stolen is a $525 Bose home theater system; mostly, he's charged with taking cheap items such as a $60 jacket and a $25 pair of pants. Police say they have documented 25 instances of theft, and while the total value of the merchandise adds up to more than $5,000 -- and makes the alleged thefts a felony -- we're still talking small potatoes.

If what the police say is true, this graduate of Duke University Law School wasn't much of a criminal mastermind. Hadn't he ever heard of inventory control, or wondered what those ubiquitous bar codes are for? And why would a man who met several times a week with the president of the United States, and who earned $161,000 a year, risk everything to steal an $88 radio?

It sounds like a cry for help, and I have no idea what went so wrong in Allen's life. But I can imagine some of the strains and contradictions he had to live with.

I have respect for principled black conservatives -- I think they're wrong about many things, but I respect their right to be wrong. It's a fact of life, though, that they are isolated from the larger African American community by their political views. At times it must be very lonely.

And since black conservatives with credentials like Claude Allen's are relatively rare, they are in great demand and tend to rise fast. They have to balance their genuine political beliefs against the fact that the Jesse Helmses of the world love to have them around as window dressing so they can say, "Look, I'm not racist; here's this black person on my staff."

You could rationalize working for someone like Helms by telling yourself that you could do more good for the African American community from the inside, next to the seat of power, than from the outside. You could tell yourself you were advancing the interests of black people, even if most black people disagreed. You could ignore racism or pretend it was something else. You could tell yourself that you were making compromises and sacrifices for the greater good.

Finally, you could arrive at the White House, with a big job and regular access to the president. But it might be a White House where all the big decisions were made by just a few people, and you weren't one of them.

Then what?

© 2006 The Washington Post Company