By Dana Milbank
Friday, August 25, 2006
HARRISONBURG, Va., Aug. 24 Sorry, but will Sen. George Allen please stop apologizing?
Since calling an Indian American man a type of monkey earlier this month, the Virginia Republican has apologized in two speeches, on Sean Hannity's radio show, in a phone call to the young man himself, in at least seven media interviews and in several statements from his campaign showing varying levels of contrition.
But when Allen arrived here in the Shenandoah Valley on Thursday to take a factory tour, the local NBC affiliate demanded another apology for the "macaca" moment. "I made a mistake," Allen obliged. "It was a mistake, and I'm sorry for it, very sorry for it, and I'm going to try to do better."
The words were barely out of his mouth when the ABC affiliate requested its pound of flesh. "Oh, goodness," the senator said with a groan. "I regret it, it was a mistake, I'm solely responsible for it, and I'm very, very sorry. . . . It was a mistake, I was wrong, it's my fault, and I'm very, very sorry to hurt anyone."
It seemed surreal to see such groveling from the former quarterback and aspiring presidential candidate. But Allen, who was cruising to reelection a few weeks ago, has seen his lead plunge in polls and has been exposed to national ridicule. The rattled candidate has lost his bluster; his aides trail him with looks of nausea.
Worse, all of this is happening in what Allen, in another context, called "America and the real world of Virginia." There's a barbecue buffet at Shoney's, and single rooms are $45.99 at the Motel 6. The vote here in what Allen repeatedly calls the "wholesome" Shenandoah Valley -- distinguishing it from less-wholesome provinces to the east -- is solidly Republican.
Yet Allen tiptoed around the issues of the day as he spoke to the local chamber of commerce. There was no mention of Iraq or the Middle East, not a word about terrorism and national security, and barely a mention of President Bush. And, addressing another all-white crowd, he labored to avoid even the hint of another macaca moment.
"We graduate 70,000 engineers every year; one-third are from another country," Allen said, before adding quickly: "Which is just fine."
Campaign aides carefully checked media credentials, excluding the video man from Democrat Jim Webb's campaign who had succeeded S.R. Sidarth, the target of the macaca jab.
The event was part of Allen's "listening tour," but when a local television reporter, during question time, called out, "Senator Allen, are you worried --," Allen recoiled as the chamber president, Kathy Welsh, intervened. "I'm sorry, we're not taking questions from the media," she announced. "This is for members of the chamber of commerce." This was followed by an awkward silence; because no chamber member had a question, Welsh asked one of her own.
Minutes later, another questioner said he was from WVPT, and Allen, fearing another reporter, cried out, "No, no."
"Chamber member," the man assured Allen. He asked about the digital broadcast spectrum.
In lieu of potentially demoralizing issues such as Iraq, Allen addressed conservative causes -- the pledge of allegiance, judicial nominees, and arctic oil drilling to lower gas prices ("It won't bother any of the mosquitoes up there"). He regained some of his usual brashness when he criticized the Bush-backed immigration legislation as "convoluted," "outrageous" and "absurd."
Trailed by reporters at the event's end, Allen practically dashed from the room and aboard his idling campaign bus.
Because Allen hinted that he would take questions at his next stop, three television cameras, a radio reporter and two newspaper reporters were waiting when his bus arrived at Friendship Industries, where the senator was announcing a grant contract to train disabled workers. Aides tried to put off the questioning again, but when the reporters started shouting, Allen consented to a quick news conference.
"Keep it tight," an Allen spokesman warned.
The fellow from NBC 29 led off. "An apology to Mr. Sidarth has been in the media, but nobody, I believe, has heard it from your mouth," he said.
"I apologized to all Virginians, I apologized," Allen said. "I finally got ahold of Sidarth, Mr. Sidarth yesterday, found his cellphone, I talked to him personally."
After another macaca question, and another macaca apology, a reporter from the local newspaper called out: "Can we get a question on the issue of the day?"
He could not. After one more macaca question, Allen's press guy had had enough. "Let's take this question right here," he interrupted, beckoning to the local newspaper reporter.
"How much is the contract?" the reporter asked.
"Nine million dollars," Allen replied.
"That's a nice contract," the reporter said.
"It's a really good contract," Allen agreed.
Watching from the back of the room, Allen supporter Ed Hughes was disgusted. Asked his opinion of the macaca melee, the cowboy-boot-wearing Hughes replied: "You can't print it. It starts with 'S.' " In politics, Hughes added, "you'd have to be a 6-year-old virgin to ever pass the test."