By Michael D. Shear
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 8, 2006
RICHMOND -- Like many kids, George Allen grew up idolizing television cowboys with shiny six-shooters at their hips. But his love affair with the imagery of the Old West endured into adulthood and became a motif of his political career.
He donned the boots, the flannel shirts and the ten-gallon hat as he rose from state lawmaker to congressman, governor and, finally, U.S. senator. The rustic image resonated in Virginia even though the state is far from cowboy country.
Now, as Virginia's junior senator battles for a second term and considers a run for the presidency in 2008, Allen hopes the cowboy persona still gives him the political benefit it gave his hero -- President Ronald Reagan -- and others such as President Lyndon B. Johnson and the current President Bush.
Last night, at a supporter's home near this city of the Old South, Allen held a Western-themed fundraiser called a "hoedown." Those who gave $50 were dubbed "Ranch Hands." Those who gave more than $1,000 earned titles such as "Buckaroo," "Cow Boss" or "Ranch Boss." Those who gave $10,000 or more to the Republican cause earned the title "El Ranchero Grande." In Allen's worldview, there is no greater compliment.
Critics say the would-be cowboy hasn't quite earned his spurs. They call it the tired political shtick of a 54-year-old Republican senator whose reelection is in jeopardy.
But former Allen chief of staff Jay Timmons said the image is genuine, born of a fascination Allen developed early in his childhood and even well into his teenage years in the 1960s.
"That was an age of long hair and the Beatles and wayward souls. Everybody was anti-establishment," said Timmons, a Washington lobbyist who is one of Allen's closest friends. "He was not somebody who was part of a pack. He did his own thing. He was clearly searching for an identity that he could connect with."
For Allen, who uses Copenhagen and wears leather cowboy boots with his blue suits, being a cowboy means dressing and acting the part.
"He connected with that at an early age," Timmons said. "It's because of that self-reliant mentality of the Old West, the pioneering spirit. That all appeals to him."
At the soggy hoedown, about 500 folks gathered under tents at the home in Goochland County along the James River. Many wore the requisite cowboy hats. A 10-foot-tall pair of brown cowboy boots greeted them as they arrived. A four-man old-time band played as the crowd munched on barbecue chicken, coleslaw, baked beans and chocolate-chip cookies.
"As far as I'm concerned, cowboy values are the best values," said Elliott Curzon, 51, a lawyer from Alexandria who called himself a huge Allen fan. "They're American values. They're gentle, but they're tough when they need to be."
The evening's featured speaker was conservative author Laura Ingraham. But the donors were there to see Allen and help him get reelected. Dressed in a white shirt, black bolo tie and tan cowboy hat, Allen promised victory.
"Are y'all ready to win one month from today? This is victory weather!" Allen roared. If voters choose based on issues, he vowed, "we will win."
On Nov. 7, Allen will follow his custom and wear cowboy boots when he goes to the polls to vote. This time, he is in a tight race against a candidate who has his own meaningful footwear. Democratic nominee James Webb, a decorated Vietnam War veteran, wears combat boots in recognition of his son's deployment to Iraq with the Marines and to symbolize his own opposition to the war there.
Allen's detractors mock the cowboy image as an act dreamed up by an ambitious surfer boy from California to appeal to rural voters in Virginia. To them, it screams phony.
"With all due respect, I know cowboys," said Steve Jarding, who was raised in South Dakota and is now a senior Webb adviser. "I grew up with cowboys. I have nephews who bull ride. I'm sorry, George, you're not a cowboy."
To Jarding, Allen's penchant for cowboy boots and a wad of snuff is as contrived as Billy Crystal's character in the faux-cowboy movie "City Slickers."
"I put on a Superman outfit for Halloween," Jarding said. "It didn't make me a superhero."
Allen declined to be interviewed for this article. But people who know him well say he came under the spell of TV westerns while growing up in a fancy Southern California suburb. His sister, Jennifer, wrote in a memoir that Allen often dressed "like a character on 'Hee Haw' -- cowboy hat, flannel shirt, blue jeans and boots."
His favorite series, according to friends, was the shoot-'em-up classic "Gunsmoke." His brothers nicknamed him "Festus" after a character on the show who was an illiterate deputy marshal in Dodge City.
As a law student, Allen summered twice at a cattle ranch in Winnemucca, Nev., while many of his peers clerked for judges or toiled over briefs at law firms. He roped cattle for a cow boss named Joe Brown. Later, he tried to invite Brown to his gubernatorial inauguration, only to learn he had died.
His law office in Charlottesville was festooned with Western paraphernalia: a saloon sign, lassos, a saddle, a stuffed armadillo and a cowhide rug. One of the items he displayed -- a hangman's noose -- later caused him trouble. Adversaries accused him of displaying a symbol of lynching as part of a pattern of insensitivity toward minorities.
Even today, one room in his Fairfax County house is dedicated to Western memorabilia.
"He's been that way for years. He's been enamored with that since he was a kid," said Chris LaCivita, a consultant who managed Allen's 2000 Senate campaign. "This is not new to a lot of people. What's being done, it's being repackaged in a negative light to assault the guy's character."
In 1979, during his first run for the House of Delegates, consultants told Allen to wear wingtips. He did, and he lost. Thereafter, he vowed to ditch the executive-style footwear.
In 1982, wearing boots and riding in a battered pickup truck, he ran again and won. He hasn't lost since.
Allen held his first hoedown in 1994 when he took office as governor. The next year, it became one of his featured fundraisers. Buttoned-down donors would shed their neckties, open their collars and arrive in stiff blue jeans and recently purchased cowboy hats and boots.
The event has remained an Allen staple even as Virginia has become more urbane, more ethnically diverse and -- some say -- less hospitable to a senator who styles himself a cowboy. In Fairfax, the state's largest jurisdiction, a quarter of the population is foreign-born. Loudoun County is diversifying, with white residents now accounting for 74 percent of the population, down from nearly 83 percent in 2000. The Latino population in Prince William County has more than doubled in the past six years, census figures show.
The Allen campaign says he has garnered plenty of minority support. For example, a group called the Latino Coalition endorsed him Monday. But some minority voters panned the image of Allen on horseback at the Buena Vista Labor Day parade.
Jarding, who last summer mocked Allen's time in Nevada at "a dude ranch," said he thinks voters will put Allen out to pasture.
"He may have wanted to be a cowboy, but there weren't a lot of cowboys on Santa Monica Boulevard," he said.
Allen's advisers say the senator is unlikely to alter his persona.
"He's the kind of person who relates to the old Western way of doing things, where you have a lot of self-responsibility and you have to do things on your own and you can't rely on others." Timmons said. "He is not somebody who is going to change who he is to suit some fad."