Three Years After 'Macaca' Misstep, Allen Inches Back Into Spotlight

George Allen in his Alexandria office.
George Allen in his Alexandria office. (Bill O'Leary - Washington Post)
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009

There is no 10-gallon hat, no bolo tie and no cowboy swagger. George Allen, a former Virginia governor and senator, is standing in a suit and tie in his Old Town Alexandria office, chatting amiably about his experiments in the garden and a whirlwind summer that took him from a prayer breakfast in South Korea to the back roads of Quebec.

"It's like driving to France," he says of his road trip to the Canadian province, where he and his 18-year-old son, Forrest, got by on his shaky "Franglais."

It has been three years since Allen's infamous campaign trail stumble that stirred racial tensions in Virginia and undercut a political arc that was headed for a run at the White House. Today, a humbled Allen is stepping back into the spotlight, prompting speculation that he is trying to rehabilitate his image in hopes of making a comeback.

Allen has started the American Energy Freedom Center, a conservative think tank, and been on talk radio and cable television to decry "cap and trade" legislation that would curb greenhouse gas emissions. He is penning a book, "The Triumph of Character: What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports." And he is popping up at events across the state, rallying support and money for GOP candidates, including gubernatorial hopeful Robert F. McDonnell.

Allen, who narrowly lost reelection to the Senate in 2006 to Sen. James Webb (D), said in a recent interview that he has not ruled out another run for office. Magnetic and folksy, and with a distinguished record as governor that included popular reforms in criminal justice, education and welfare, he has a pedigree that would make him a natural choice for higher office.

But he would have to overcome the memory of that August campaign stop near the Kentucky border, when Allen derided a young Indian American volunteer from Webb's campaign with what some have said was a racial slur. "Let's give a welcome to macaca, here," he told a chuckling crowd. "Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia."

It wasn't the only reason he lost to Webb, a former Marine whose vocal critique of the war in Iraq tapped into growing national outrage. But that grainy Internet footage of a sarcastic, aggressive Allen inciting regional and cultural tensions has taken on iconic proportions. People still refer to a revealing, game-changing political gaffe caught on tape as a candidate's "macaca moment."

Allen apologized for saying "macaca," a derogatory term that means monkey in some countries. He has said it was nonsensical and not aimed at S.R. Sidarth's ethnicity.

In his office, Allen groped for words as he tried to articulate what happened that day in Breaks, Va.

"It was alliteration or something," he says. "I don't know the word. I should not have called him anything aside from 'the fellow in the yellow shirt.' . . . It was a mistake. That was not intended to insult anyone. It's not my nature. I'm a generally jovial, happy person. Nonetheless, it was a mistake on my part, and I apologize for it, even if it was unintentional."

He continues, using the kind of sports analogy the son of a former Washington Redskins coach has become known for: "You do get knocked down, you get back up, you learn from your mistakes. You don't brood over them. But when you make mistakes, you're going to get it, and when you're in the public eye, you're really going to get it."

These days, he says, he is focused on his consulting business, his book and the work of his think tank, which is a project of the oil-industry-funded Institute for Energy Research.

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