Thursday, October 12, 2006

Like a Rhinestone Cowboy

There's been a load of compromisin’
On the road to my horizon
But I'm gonna be where the lights are shinin’ on me
-- from “Rhinestone Cowboy” (1975) by Larry Weiss

Cynical wags assert that all we voters really need to know about Sen. George Allen is how he stands on legislative bills. Eying either the holding or gaining of a Senate majority, they see Allen’s reliable support of the Bush administration’s agenda as trumping all else. Such political party loyalists see that Allen is dressed as the elephant, his opponent Jim Webb is wearing the donkey suit; that’s all that counts.

Yet, most of us voters aren’t such rigid thinkers. Party affiliation or not, we prefer to be comfortable with what we sense to be the basic beliefs and character of our elected officials. We’d at least like to think we know the truth about those aspects of people who make far-reaching decisions that affect all of us, even if we don’t always agree with them.

However, with the election close at hand a new picture of the incumbent, George Allen, is coming into focus. In part because of that development, now Allen, who has previously served Virginia as a congressman and governor, finds himself in the political fight of his life

The news during the campaign that Allen has twice been video-taped in public acting like a common bully with a genuine mean streak is part of what is shaping that new picture. The bullying incidents had a common theme -- ethnicity, which has proven to be a nettlesome topic for Allen in this campaign. He seems to be unraveling.

Much to the chagrin of the Allen camp, both incidents became popular entertainment on the Internet, via YouTube. Without those video clips at YouTube’s web site being widely viewed, it’s hard to imagine we’d be where we are with this story today. At the same time, Allen’s laughably inept handling of both incidents did much to exacerbate the damage of the gaffes.

Beyond the two videotaped gaffes Allen’s assertion that he had no idea, until recently, that displays of the Confederate flag are taken as an affront by many black Virginians is somewhat baffling, too. Huh? Such nonsense hardly slowed down the unraveling.

Allen’s former ardent supporters, the Sons of Confederate Veterans, denounced his epiphany about the Stars and Bars. Then later in the same tough week for Allen, a Saturday Night Live skit portrayed a cowboy-hat-wearing Allen as about half-as-sincere as a furniture pitchman on TV.

When Allen said he had no idea that “macaca” -- a word he says he made up -- happens to be a racial slur in some particular places, it was laughable. When he claimed he didn’t know until late-August his mother is Jewish, it invited comedians to go after him all the more.

Allen did little to help himself in Monday’s debate in Richmond. His delivery sounded canned. His shoehorning of the names of supposedly scary liberals -- Hillary Clinton and Ted Kennedy! -- into nearly every answer was a bit obvious. And, maybe those names don’t really scare 25-to-35-year-old moderate/undecided suburbanites as much as they used to?

During that debate an unusually self-conscious Allen played directly to his base, but it’s hard to think he did much to arrest his negative momentum anywhere else.

In his, “Allen’s Advisers Try Mute-Button Strategy,” The Washington Post’s Michael Shear reports that Allen’s camp is now doing all it can to avoid having its candidate face any more difficult questions.

“...With less than a month before Election Day, Allen (R-Va.) has become virtually impossible to interview directly, giving his campaign handlers much more control over the message they send to voters. What voters see this month will be -- they hope -- only what they want voters to see. The idea, apparently, is to avoid any further gaffes.”

At this point what may be most troubling to Allen’s handlers is that the cumulative effect of all the charges and awkward moves is indeed shaping a rather unflattering picture of the Republican candidate: With his Mr. Nice Guy image disappearing by the day, Allen now looks to many like a loutish ex-jock, who’s been a social and political chameleon all along.

What has developed into a glaring authenticity problem for George "Rhinestone Cowboy" Allen, which only his blindest of loyalists can’t see, may prove to be more telling on election day than all the party politics money can buy.

-- 30 --

Updated at 2 p.m., same day. Art: F.T. Rea

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