An Ascent Shadowed By Questions on Race

By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 26, 2006; A01

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?

Allen, who denies using racist language, declined requests for an interview, asking instead for written questions. By yesterday, his campaign had not provided answers.

Those closest to him say that Allen is no bigot and that partisan enemies have seized on murky 30-year-old anecdotes and meaningless lapses in political correctness to damage him.

"Politics has become more of a contact sport than football," said Allen's brother Bruce, general manager of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. "I know the person. I know the man."

Others from Allen's past said they saw a distressingly familiar, coldly taunting hatred when they viewed the macaca tape.

"So let's give a welcome to macaca here," Allen said, pointing a finger. "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia." Allen later said he didn't know what the word meant and apologized to the Webb volunteer, S.R. Sidarth.

"I saw how he looked, that attitude of condescension and superiority," said Ed Sabornie, a former Virginia player and now a professor of special education at North Carolina State University.

"That rang a bell for me."

'Greasers, Surfers, Crew-Cutters'

There was darkness on the edges of the world of privilege and glamour in which Allen grew up.

His father, George Allen, was the milk-chugging NFL Hall of Famer who took the Washington Redskins to their first Super Bowl in 1973. He compiled a 116-47-5 record over 12 seasons as a coach with the Los Angeles Rams and the Redskins but made room for little else in his life.

"If a man is going to succeed in anything, he must neglect everything else, whether it is his wife, his children or himself," he told an interviewer in 1970.

Even when he took his sons to the Rams' summer training camp, they spent most of their time with Allen's assistants and friendly players such as Deacon Jones, said Gause, who accompanied the younger Allen one year.

When the coach was at their Mediterranean-style home on a cul-de-sac with jaw-dropping views of the Pacific Ocean, the family's spirits rose and fell with the fortunes of the team.

After a painful 1968 loss, George and his brother Gregory elected to go home with neighbors rather than face their father's black mood. In her vivid family memoir, "Fifth Quarter," his sister Jennifer Allen described violence at home, including her father breaking Gregory's nose in a fight at the dinner table after a 1969 playoff loss.

Neither Jennifer nor Gregory Allen responded to requests for interviews. Bruce Allen, who said he doesn't remember the incident, said his sister's book was written "from a little girl's eyes" and should not be taken literally.

Allen's mother, Henrietta, known as Etty, is a gracious woman with a bitter and sometimes fiercely vindictive side, especially when it comes to protecting her husband's reputation. She effectively raised the Allen children on her own.

"Etty ran the show," said Melvin Durslag, a columnist for the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald Examiner and a longtime family friend.

She also carried the pain of her own turbulent childhood. Born in Tunis to French-Jewish parents, Etty Lumbroso endured the 1942-43 Nazi occupation and Allied bombing that destroyed her home. She watched her father, Felix, a wine importer, taken to a labor camp by the Germans. She met Allen in 1950 while visiting friends in Sioux City, Iowa, where he was coaching at Morningside College. They married a year later.

On summer evenings when the coach and the boys were at training camp, Jennifer Allen wrote, Etty would sip wine and lament the death in a motorcycle accident of a French fiancé she called "the love of my life."

Etty told The Washington Post last month that her husband, who died in 1990, asked her to conceal her Jewish identity from his family and that she and Allen wanted to protect their children from the fear she experienced during the war. It remained a secret between her and her husband, she said, until a dinner conversation with George in August.

There was a price to pay for the long years of keeping the secret. Her daughter hints at the private pain in the form of boxes from Tunis and France, stacked in the garage in Palos Verdes. Etty told Jennifer she would never unpack them. Jennifer wrote that she always looked at her mother's life before she met her father as "an unopened box."

Young George and his two brothers filled the gaps at home with friends Jennifer described as "greasers, surfers, crew-cutters" who were "toughs."

"My brothers led each pack," she said. As the oldest, George was sometimes the enforcer. When Jennifer refused to go to bed, he dragged her upstairs by her hair.

One of Allen's friends, Deke Applegate, said Allen's crowd was rough-and-tumble but disputes Gause's recollection of racism. "That's not the guy I hung out with," said Applegate, a Las Vegas businessman.

Allen and Applegate did share an affinity for the Confederate flag. Yearbook pictures show them with pins on their collars. Applegate said it was a "symbol of rebellion against the establishment," nothing more.

Others say Allen acted out at school. Tim Good, a classmate, said he had to confront the 6-foot-plus Allen after his younger brother reported that Allen had stolen his bicycle.

"George Allen was a big bully," said Good, now an accountant in Torrance, Calif. Allen denied stealing the bike, but Good said it reappeared at school the next day.

One morning, students arrived to see workers removing graffiti spray-painted on an outside wall. It was the day of a basketball game with the lone majority-black school in Palos Verdes's athletic conference, Morningside High in Inglewood.

The graffiti included the phrase "Kill Whitey," said Good, who added that former students have said that Allen was responsible. In a 2000 interview with The Post, Allen said there was an incident at school but declined to discuss the details. "I did something wrong when I was young that I regret," he said.

After a year at the University of California at Los Angeles, Allen followed his family east in 1971, when his father was named coach of the Redskins. His football teammates at the University of Virginia said they found some of the same racial insensitivity.

"People gave him a wide berth," said Ken Shelton, one of three former Cavaliers who told Salon magazine in September that Allen regularly used racial slurs for blacks.

Shelton, a North Carolina radiologist, said in an interview that in Newcomb Hall, the student center, Allen would spit tobacco juice "anywhere -- on the walls, on the floors, in the elevators" and habitually shouldered people aside as he walked by.

Change was beginning to stir in Charlottesville, long a clubby redoubt for the sons of Virginia's white establishment. Blacks and women had started to shake up the campus culture. The football team included the first four African Americans to receive full athletic scholarships.

It was a challenging environment for the athletes. Harrison Davis, the Cavaliers' first black starter at quarterback, who regularly received hate mail, said he never heard Allen use racial slurs. Nor did Stanley Land, a defensive tackle. But Land, a Houston chemical executive, said he was offended by the Confederate flags he saw in Allen's van and his campus apartment, especially when some of his teammates were under such pressure.

"To me, that showed a lack of real respect for his African American teammates," Land said.

'Not the Man He Once Was'

In 1979, Roy Parks's land-use and design firm in Charlottesville needed more room. He spoke to George Allen about renting space in the building he owned on Market Street, where he'd set up his law practice. As the negotiations came to naught, Parks said, their conversations drifted to politics.

Allen, getting ready to make his first run for the state legislature, allowed that he had supported a Democrat, Edward Lane, for state attorney general in 1977. Lane had been a segregationist in the 1950s, an architect of Virginia's "massive resistance" movement in which communities closed schools rather than comply with court orders to integrate. He lost to Republican J. Marshall Coleman.

"When I questioned George further, he said that Lane, like him, was an advocate for states' rights and was only a man of his time," said Parks, who was stunned by Allen's admission.

Lane, now 82 and ill with Parkinson's disease, was unable to comment. His wife, Jean, said she has no memory of Allen's support.

As a state legislator in 1984, Allen was one of 27 members of the House of Delegates to oppose a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. During his 1993 gubernatorial campaign, he acknowledged displaying the Confederate flag in his living room, calling it part of a flag collection. A hangman's noose, which he said was part of a Western memorabilia collection, hung in his law office.

As governor, Allen appointed one black cabinet member, Kay Coles James, as secretary of health and human resources, and a Latino, Transportation Secretary Robert E. Martinez. Midway through his term, the number of African Americans in senior posts had declined by half from the tenure of L. Douglas Wilder, the state's first black governor, according to an audit by a state watchdog agency. For three years, he incensed black leaders with an annual Confederate History Month proclamation that failed to mention slavery.

Allen had an active term as governor. He abolished the state's parole system, replacing it with a "truth in sentencing" law that requires those convicted of crimes to serve the bulk of their sentence. He pushed through changes in welfare and education policy and signed a measure requiring parental notification for minors seeking abortions.

As he launched his 2000 Senate campaign, Allen began some attempts to mend racial fences. He backed Gov. James S. Gilmore's proposal for an MLK holiday in Virginia. After defeating Charles S. Robb, his first floor speech was in support of the appointment of Richmond lawyer Roger Gregory, an African American, to the 4th Circuit federal appeals court. Then came the 2004 pilgrimage, the first of three that he took.

"None of us can presume to know what the motivation is" for Allen's civil rights trips, said the Rev. Douglas Tanner, who recently retired as president and chief executive of the Faith & Politics Institute. "For someone in politics, it's always likely to be a mixture of genuine interest and whatever the political advantage is."

Gillis, who has supported other Republicans, said that he doesn't know whether Allen used racist language but that, in the end, it's not that important. "I've had white friends who've used those words in the heat of passion," he said. "It's a time past. He's not the man he once was."

Allen remains an opponent of affirmative action. In 2005, the NAACP said he supported legislation deemed to be in its interest 15 percent of the time.

More often, his advocacy is in initiatives such as his co-sponsorship of the resolution apologizing to lynching victims and their descendants. In other areas, he has co-authored legislation blocking federal taxes on Internet access and online sales. He also collaborated on the National Nanotechnology Initiative, which invests $3.7 billion in research.

His appearances before black audiences are a delicate dance. At the NAACP state conference in Hampton on Friday night, he got no questions about "macaca" or other recent revelations.

When the moderator presented Allen with an application for a lifetime membership, he happily took the opportunity for a positive gesture.

Later, answering a question about racial profiling, Allen explained that he opposed the practice. When someone in the audience said "Amen," Allen was briefly startled.

"Did I say that right?" he asked.

Metro researcher Meg Smith, researcher Rena Kirsch and director of information resources Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.

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