A Tale of Two Pols
Back in 1993 when Sen. George Allen (R) was running for Virginia governor, he took a break from a swank fundraising luncheon to kibitz with reporters. "The soup has fritters in it!" he complained in the same tone he once used to scold someone who handed him what he called "Pair-ee-yay" water on a campaign flight.
But had this California-bred lawyer really never seen a matzo ball? Though Allen had been known to confuse tofu and sushi, the scribes had their suspicions. Whether he was sly or simply unschooled has been a perpetual question about this son of a famous father who was coastal born and raised in privilege, then reinvented himself with cowboy boots and down-home talk on his way to becoming a governor and Washington politician.
Indeed, the uncanny echoes of George W. Bush's career have fueled the hopes of Allen backers that he would be Bush's presidential heir. But as Bush's popularity has slumped, Allen's 2008 outlook has dimmed. Worse, last week's bizarre Allen insult of a rival's young campaign aide has revived old questions about his sensitivity, temper and smarts. Some high-level Republicans warn that if he's not careful, he may wind up branded as Bush without the brains.
I've spent exactly half my post-college career trailing the two Georges: When I had hair, I covered George Allen's insurgent campaign and his term as governor for the Richmond Times-Dispatch. I learned about a "poor man's shandy" when I watched him pour orange juice into his beer at a press party at the governor's mansion. I chased him around the commonwealth in a white Chevy Cavalier, to the beat of NASCAR and NPR. More recently, I have tracked George Bush as a campaign reporter and White House correspondent, riding in endless white vans marked "Press 1."
Allen, eldest son of the legendary Redskins football coach, had what the storybook star Alexander would call a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad week, which triggered the perverse consequence of prompting Beltway types to reevaluate whether he has what it takes to remain on their '08 radars. (No one ever seems to take your temperature when you're healthy.) He's still on the scopes, if perhaps on probation. And he can hope that the pundits will eventually conclude, as they generally have about the president, that he's dumb like a fox -- shrewd and acute when it counts, and maybe when you're not looking.
Until now, Allen had openly positioned himself as Bush's true successor, a genuine Reaganite in a field of moderates and ideological acrobats. He certainly has cultivated a Bush-like folksiness; he talks charmingly of "grub," "pesky bureaucrats" and the "right many" times he has stopped at his favorite restaurant on the road, IHOP. He shares Bush's fondness for boots, too. After he won election as governor in 1993, I asked him if he would wear them into the statehouse. " 'Course!" he replied. "I don't have any shoes." It turns out he really did give up wingtips after a consultant recommended them when he was running for the Virginia House of Delegates in 1979 and he lost.
On Wednesday, the two Georges will appear together at a cocktail fundraiser held by Ed Gillespie, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee under Bush and is now treasurer of Allen's leadership political action committee, which could help fund his presidential exploration if he wins reelection to the Senate in November.
There are key differences between the two, though. Allen, 54, is three inches taller and six years younger than the president. And where Bob Woodward found that Bush could give detail-rich answers to scores of complex questions at a stretch, Allen embarrassed himself in January by replying "For what?" when a New York Times reporter asked his opinion of the nomination of Ben S. Bernanke, which had been announced three months before and was coming to a Senate vote. (Hint: His predecessor was Alan Greenspan.) Then again, Mary Matalin, a key Bush political adviser, was so impressed by Allen's fluency in foreign affairs that she has signed on as treasurer of the George Allen Victory Committee, which will support his reelection campaign.
For now, Allen, like Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), says he is focused only on reelection, with nary a thought of the White House. In the Virginian's case, that's getting more believable: Democrat James Webb, a Vietnam veteran who was secretary of the Navy under President Ronald Reagan, could give the senator quite a run in a state that is becoming less reliably red.
And Allen certainly did not help himself two Fridays ago when he made fun of a Webb campaign volunteer who was following him around. Such workers are called "trackers," and both parties use them. But Allen pointed to the dark-skinned volunteer -- a Virginia native of Indian descent -- before welcoming him "to America and the real world of Virginia" and calling him "Macaca." The word can be a slur (it literally means a type of monkey), but Allen aides said it was a play on "mohawk," for the 20-year-old's partly shaved head. Webb's campaign soon posted the embarrassing clip on YouTube.com, producing a spate of front-page stories.
Allen aides point out that there were black people in the audience, so he was not singling out the only minority; that the senator often uses nicknames, such as "Commodore" for Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.); and that Allen often talks about "the real world."
But Allen failed to follow the other George's playbook for what to do when caught red-handed. Allen, in at least two interviews, apologized to the volunteer "if he's offended" -- kind of like telling your girlfriend you're sorry that she's mad at you. Late and lame, chided the state's editorialists. Bush, however, writes in his autobiography, "A Charge to Keep," about the time he accidentally shot a rare songbird, the killdeer, while dove hunting during his 1994 race to unseat Texas Gov. Ann Richards (D). Bush, at the behest of advisers, called a news conference to confess his transgression and add a dollop of humor. "Thank goodness it was not deer season; I might have shot a cow," he joshed.
Allen's indiscretion reinforced one of his fundamental vulnerabilities: his past embrace of the Confederate flag, which he says was a manifestation of youthful rebellion. The New Republic's Ryan Lizza provoked astonished murmuring in GOP circles with a May article about "George Allen's race problem." The 5,000-word evisceration revealed that Allen, at age 17, had worn a Confederate flag pin for a yearbook photo at his high school in Palos Verdes, Calif. Allen's office confirmed to Lizza that it was a rebel flag, and said it was possible that he also sported the Stars and Bars on his Mustang, as classmates had recalled. Republicans assumed the yearbook must have come from a well-organized opponent, but Lizza told me that it came from a classmate who, while "no Allen fan," did not know about the pin.
The senator's backers insist that Republicans want a winner more than anything else and that if their man trounces Webb in November, the party will sleep off any Bush fatigue in a big hurry. You reckon?
Mike Allen is the White House correspondent for Time and writes the Allen Report on Time.com.