By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 14, 2009; B01
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.
The aim of the nonprofit, nonpartisan group is to promote a conservative vision for the country's energy future, Allen says. It is devoted to the development of "clean coal" and safer nuclear technology and "playing tenacious defense against horrendous ideas," including cap-and-trade, which would require businesses to limit their greenhouse gas emissions or otherwise mitigate the impact on the environment. He argues that it would put the United States at a competitive disadvantage against India, China and other developing countries that have rejected such restrictions. Critics of the group have characterized its views as extreme and out of the mainstream.
Allen said he has spent "not a scintilla of time" pondering whether to run for the Senate again. But he is campaigning regularly on behalf of McDonnell, who as state attorney general was among the first to issue a statement supportive of Allen after his 2006 defeat.
A spokesman for McDonnell described Allen as a personal friend who plays an "informal" role in the campaign. On a recent afternoon, at McDonnell's request, Allen spoke with a group of undecided Northern Virginia businessmen at a Tysons Corner hotel to try to persuade them to support the former attorney general. Allen's wife, Susan, has appeared at GOP events this year and is a member of "Women for McDonnell."
Friends and supporters say Allen still enjoys a deep well of support in the community, particularly among Republicans. As the GOP tries to recover from recent defeats in Virginia and beyond, many think fondly of his come-from-behind gubernatorial victory in 1993, when a Democrat occupied the White House and after three successive Democratic governors.
"At the end of the day, Virginians love men of action," said Alexandra Liddy Bourne, who served in Allen's administration and is executive director of his think tank. "His mistakes are forgiven. We are way past them. We have saddled up, and we're going forward."
For some, though, he will be forever tainted. In April, at an annual fish fry in southeastern Virginia that typically draws the state's political elite, someone had put up a "George Allen 2012" sign. The idea struck Annabel Park, founder of a group called "Real Virginians for Webb" during the 2006 campaign, as so absurd that she snapped a picture.
Then Park met Allen. To her surprise, she found him "warm, friendly and engaging," she said. "I was like, 'Oh, wow, he has something.' My opinion of George Allen changed a lot at that moment."
Still, she believes that his missteps unmasked the racist strains that still run deep in American society. It would take a bold statement against those forces for Allen to recover his image, she said, and "I don't think he has the strength of character."