Va. Senate Candidates: George Allen
An Ascent Shadowed By Questions on Race
Thursday, October 26, 2006
In February 2004, Sen. George Allen was on a bus taking him from Birmingham to Selma, Ala. On a video screen in front of him was "Eyes on the Prize," the acclaimed documentary chronicling the civil rights movement.
Allen "knew very little" about the history of that struggle, according to his seatmate, Paul Gillis, former president of the Virginia NAACP. But Gillis, once a bitter critic and now one of his few prominent black supporters, was impressed with Allen's willingness to take a three-day pilgrimage, sponsored by the nonpartisan Faith & Politics Institute, to visit the battlegrounds of that era and listen to the testimony of those who spilled their blood.
It was many miles from the sun-splashed Los Angeles suburbs, where some classmates at Palos Verdes High School recall a lone tobacco-chewing teenage cowboy who was disliked, even feared.
"George was not what I would call mainstream," said Don Gause, a wide receiver who caught Allen's passes for the Sea Kings. One reason, Gause said, was that Allen used anti-black epithets and "ran with a group of guys off the football field" who used the same language.
"George took some hard lines in that area," said Gause, a real estate executive in Orange County, Calif. His sense, though, was that it was more for attention than out of any racial animus.
"He was immature, like most of us," Gause said. "He was looking for who he was."
Who George Allen was, and who he is today after 23 years in politics, remains an issue as the Virginia Republican seeks reelection. Supporters say the pilgrimage was one leg of a journey that has led to genuine maturation for Allen, 54, whose style melds Ronald Reagan's optimism with George W. Bush's Texas swagger.
Popular as a governor and a senator, with a genial presence on the campaign trail, Allen has considered running for president. But a series of events have revived lingering questions about his attitudes on race and have helped turn what was expected to be an easy path to reelection into a fight for his political career.
At an August rally in southwest Virginia, Allen interrupted a routine stump speech and pointed to a man of Indian descent who was videotaping the event for his Democratic opponent, James Webb, and called the aide "macaca," a genus of monkey. Some of Allen's former football teammates at the University of Virginia came forward later to say that he routinely used racist language. Asked at a debate last month about reports of his Jewish roots, he denounced the accounts as "aspersions" before confirming them a day later.
The episodes unraveled an effort by Allen to mend a reputation for racial insensitivity that has pursued him through his steady rise from Palos Verdes to college athlete, lawyer, state legislator, governor and, in 2000, U.S. senator. Allen has, for example, had to explain his fondness for the Confederate flag and the presence of a hangman's noose in his Charlottesville law office.
In his first Senate term, he has taken three civil rights pilgrimages, co-sponsored a resolution apologizing to lynching victims and their descendants, and proposed allocating a half-billion dollars to historically black colleges.
But "macaca" raises a question: Has Allen really evolved, or did his true nature slip into public view?