By Michael D. Shear and Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, August 16, 2006
RICHMOND, Aug. 15 -- Sen. George Allen on Tuesday sought to contain the political damage from remarks he made to a Fairfax County man that dredged up charges of racial insensitivity -- allegations that have dogged him for years as governor, senator and now presidential hopeful.
Despite a quick apology Monday, criticism poured in about Allen's use of the word "Macaca" to address a volunteer for the campaign of his Democratic opponent, James Webb, and also about another Allen comment, "Welcome to America." Democrats, left-wing bloggers and civil rights groups called him "insensitive" and "racist," while some conservatives called him "foolish" and "mean."
The question was fiercely debated all day: Was "Macaca," which literally means a genus of monkey, a deliberate racist epithet or a weird ad-libbed word with no meaning? And what was Allen trying to say by singling out the young man of Indian descent?
Allen's defenders rushed to his side, saying the comments, though careless, do not reflect what is inside the senator's heart. Sudhakar Shenoy, an Indian business executive from Fairfax who has known Allen for years, said he "has been an incredible friend to Indians" and is not a racist. "I'd stake everything I have that George is not that kind of a guy," Shenoy said.
In a statement released Tuesday afternoon, Allen (R-Va.) said his remarks Friday to S.R. Sidarth, who at the time was videotaping an Allen campaign event on Webb's behalf, "have been greatly misunderstood by members of the media." He said Monday that "Macaca" was a play on "Mohawk," a nickname given to Sidarth by the Allen campaign because of his hairstyle. In Tuesday's statement, Allen said he "made up a nickname for the cameraman, which was in no way intended to be racially derogatory. Any insinuations to the contrary are completely false."
The comments were made at a campaign stop in the southwestern Virginia town of Breaks, where Allen spoke to about 100 supporters. Moments after greeting the crowd, Allen repeatedly pointed at Sidarth, called him "Macaca, or whatever his name is" and went on to say, "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia," as the crowd laughed.
With the video of Allen's remarks available around the globe via Youtube.com and other Web sites, the Virginia controversy became one of the most blogged-about topics on the Internet, according to the Technorati Web site, which tracks entries on 51.3 million blogs.
That thrust Sidarth, 20, a volunteer working as the Democratic eyes and ears on Allen's campaign, into the national spotlight. He was interviewed Tuesday by several major newspapers and appeared on CNN and other television networks.
Meanwhile, Allen's past -- which includes a youthful admiration of the Confederate flag and an office that once displayed a noose -- lurched back into the public spotlight during the Republican's senatorial battle against Webb, a Navy secretary during the Reagan administration.
During the past two years, as Allen has flirted with the idea of running for president in 2008, he has introduced symbolic anti-lynching legislation in the Senate and promised to lead the charge for an official apology for slavery. Political pundits who follow Allen closely said the new comments threaten that well-planned effort.
"There are very few issues in American politics that are more sensitive than race. Senator Allen has just plunked himself down in the middle of it," said Geoffrey D. Garin, a leading Democratic pollster. "Allen's comments take him back to a place he was trying to escape from."
Avoiding the subjects of race and Allen's history was proving unlikely in the short term as the odd story of the senator's comments bounced around the nation's capital.
Sanjay Puri, the leader of the nation's largest Indian political action committee and a longtime Allen supporter, said he will lead a delegation of Indian business executives and community leaders to meet with Allen on Wednesday to express dismay.
"The comments are very insensitive. That's what we want to find out: How can we continue working with him?" Puri said. "The senator has had a very good relationship with our community. I was pretty surprised -- you can say shocked."
Mark Potok, director of the intelligence project for the Southern Poverty Law Center, based in Montgomery, Ala., said it was "simply impossible to believe" that Allen did not intend the comments as a racial insult.
"To me, it looks like yet another case of a politician pandering to the worst instincts in an all-white crowd," Potok said.
Virginia Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who during his campaign last year was dogged by young GOP operatives with video cameras -- usually called trackers -- chided Allen.
"It's insensitive," Kaine said. "Campaigns are tough. But George has been in campaigns. He knows there's trackers. It's just a fact of life. You should just do your thing and not single them out."
Big-time campaigns often assign trackers to shadow their opponents, hoping to catch the candidate making a gaffe or shifting the message to accommodate different audiences. Virginia Republicans have tracked Webb this year. Often, videos can end up in campaign commercials.
That was the job of Sidarth, a University of Virginia senior who attended Thomas Jefferson High School in Fairfax County. His father, Shekar Narasimhan, is a mortgage banker who has contributed more than $35,000 to Democratic causes in the past decade, according to a review of state and federal campaign finance reports.
Sidarth joined Webb's effort this summer, initially working as a field organizer. Last week, when Allen kicked off his statewide "listening tour," Sidarth was asked to trail Allen, he said. Driving his 1996 Volvo, he followed Allen from Charlottesville to Richmond to the Northern Neck. He said he was "shocked" when Allen began talking about him.
"I didn't believe that he had gone to using race in the political arena," he said.
Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, wrote on the magazine's Web site Tuesday that he did not think Allen was "trying to speak a coded racist language." But Lowry said Allen showed he "has a mean streak."