By Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 10, 2009
Macaca: Is it an adjective, as in a "macaca moment," or is it a verb, as in "to macaca" a political candidate?
Since the word slipped from the lips of then-U.S. Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) during a 2006 campaign stop, it has entered the political lexicon largely with one specific meaning.
It has come to be a synonym for a game-changing political gaffe.
In Allen's case, it was a video that quickly went viral of him referring to a young Indian American volunteer for his opponent with the dismissive and, some thought, racially tinged word.
Did Gov. Mark Sanford (R) of South Carolina commit a "macaca moment" when he let aides say he was hiking the Appalachian trail instead of acknowledging he was visiting his mistress in Argentina? What about any number of foot-in-mouth gaffes by Vice President Biden -- did they rise to macaca heights?
For three years, that's been macaca's primary role in political conversations.
But this week, Virginians have seen something new: a concerted effort to reappropriate the word as a verb.
In that meaning, "to macaca" is to pursue an unfair smear against a political candidate, particularly a Republican -- a task undertaken by the media, particularly The Washington Post.
As in, "Is The Washington Post trying to macaca Bob McDonnell?"
That was the question posed last week by Washington Examiner columnist Michael Barone, who then initiated a "macaca watch" to track Post stories and editorial columns about Republican gubernatorial candidate Robert F. McDonnell's 1989 graduate school thesis.
Barone's columns quickly spread over the Internet, and the theme -- that The Post and other media organizations were trying to macaca McDonnell -- was picked up by any number of commentators.
By now, everyone who follows Virginia politics is familiar with the academic document, in which McDonnell outlined ways for Republicans to strengthen the American family and wrote that working women, feminists and homosexuals were detrimental to that goal.
News of the thesis first appeared in The Post, and the newspaper ran stories about reaction to it in the days that followed -- as did just about every other publication in Virginia and many beyond.
McDonnell's response to the potentially damaging story has taken a few forms. He has apologized for some of the thesis's language, has said he has changed some of his views since it was written, has said the document was irrelevant and, after one lengthy call with reporters about it, has said he was uninterested in discussing it further.
Perhaps most effectively, he and his supporters have gone on the attack, accusing the media of misinterpreting his words and dwelling on the document in an effort to hurt his campaign.
It is a fairly standard way for campaigns to respond to media stories they don't like: Nothing fires up supporters more than the image of their candidate under unfair attack.
"You know it's September when The Washington Post stops being a newspaper and starts being a mouthpiece of the Democratic Party," Virginia GOP Chairman Pat Mullins said at a breakfast in Buena Vista on Monday before the town's Labor Day parade.
What's interesting about the macaca strategy is that it attempts to do two things at once. It tries to inoculate McDonnell against charges leveled by Democratic opponent R. Creigh Deeds that the ideas expressed in the thesis represent McDonnell's true views by suggesting that any discussion of the thesis is unfair.
It also serves to reimagine the history of the 2006 Senate campaign as an example of a Republican unfairly driven from office by the media, rather than a candidate brought low by his own words, his campaign's rocky handling of a crisis and a view of his party that had soured nationally.
If Virginians over time can be convinced that the macaca episode was an unfair assault on Allen, it could boost his efforts to rehabilitate his image and possibly stage a political comeback.
Of course, for that strategy to work, it would require Virginians to forget about some of Allen's other bungling moments in 2006, including clumsy responses to questions about his Jewish ancestry and his past associations with the Confederate flag.
Hitting the media in general and The Post in particular has long been a campaign tactic in Virginia, said political commentator Bob Holsworth. He recalled an Oliver North stump speech line during the 1994 campaign for Senate in which North talked about getting up each morning and reading the Bible for 10 minutes a day -- and then going outside to pick up his Post to get the other side.
The tactic might have particular resonance this year because The Post editorial board's endorsement of Deeds during the Democratic primary was widely seen as the key to his victory in that three-way race, Holsworth said.
"It's become almost ritualistic to hit The Post," he said. "They're going to do everything they can to minimize the impact of this story -- including shooting the messenger, if need be."