Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Allen, the Chameleon

Some say all we need to know about Sen. George Allen is how he votes on bills in the Senate. Ideologues, of the left or right, see Allen’s reliable support of the Bush administration’s agenda as the most important thing to know about him. Therefore, their affection for the man Allen is, or lack of it, has little to do with his heart and mind. What’s inside the Republican suit George Allen wears matters little to them.

Yet, on the heels of recent revelations, many other people are asking: Do Virginians know the real Sen. George Allen? After all, most of us aren’t ideologues. Most voters do care about the true beliefs and the character of their elected officials.

What I want to know is this: Is Allen a social and political chameleon, a native Californian forever striving to be a Southern good ol’ boy? Moreover, does he actually have any true beliefs?

When Allen first appeared on the political horizon he was the son of a well-known professional football coach. His father, George Allen the head coach, had taken the Washington Redskins to the Super Bowl in 1973 (Miami 14, Washington 7). As an undergraduate at the University of Virginia George Allen, the son, had been a backbench quarterback.

Now, I’m not saying what Allen did as a child in California, or as a college student in Charlottesville, is off limits. What I am saying is that short of extreme behavior, I’m not all that concerned with evidence of Allen’s awkwardness as a chameleon in the 1970s. Yes, some of it may be funny at his expense, so I’ll laugh. Some of it may well have been foreshadowing to what we see now, so I’ll note that, too. But I’ll not dwell on it.

The truth is in the 1970s many white athletes and sports aficionados in Virginia used racist language in their casual conversations. Some of it was mild, some was extreme. How many of them did it to fit in, and how many of them did it to express their heartfelt hatred is something I’ll never know. During that era I played a lot of basketball and softball and I heard plenty of it hanging around with jocks. On several occasions when the talk was extreme and I felt obligated to voice an objection, or turn my back and walk away, the culprit was not from Virginia.

Yes, the most foul-mouthed racist blather I heard frequently emanated from men who had recently moved to Virginia from New Jersey, or Massachusetts, or wherever. They always seemed surprised that a Southern white guy, who played sports and liked to have a beer afterward, could be offended by their language.

So, if in the 1970s young George Allen acted exactly like one of those jocks who’d moved here and assumed he would be accepted more readily by talking like a throwback to the days of Jim Crow, he was not unusual. Allen, the politician, has always come across as just that sort of phony to me. I’m not a bit surprised that he’s turned out to be a George Bush toady, just as he was once an admirer of Southern politicians who were Massive Resisters.

The pattern has been that Allen, the faux cowboy, needs to fit in with people in power.

In the last six weeks Allen has twice been caught on video tape acting like a bully. Both incidents had to do with ethnicity, a subject that seems to bring out the worst in Allen. His recent moves to say he had no idea the Confederate flag was still upsetting to many black citizens are either laughable or galling, depending on one’s point of view. But such moves fit his pattern of saying whatever he figures will keep him in a seat close to those in power. Now he and Benny Lambert are pals.

Yet, as reporters who’ve covered him know, Allen has an excellent memory and he’s always been quite aware of the various tides of Virginia’s political history. So, when he says he just forgot, or that he didn’t know what a potent symbol meant, well...

Still, just as I think it is silly to hammer Allen’s opponent, Jim Webb, to do with what he said about females in the military in the 1970s, I’ll pass on piling on over what Allen may have said in private conversations in that same time.

At the same time, to suggest that Allen will withdraw from the race over this brouhaha is a silly distraction that undermines the credibility of anyone who promotes that notion. Alas, it seems no one has cornered the market on silliness.

To win, serious Democrats must make the choice simple -- Allen is a total phony, a Bush ditto. Webb is authentic, he does his own thinking.

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