Sunday, December 31, 2006

Top story in review: Webb upsets Allen

Senator-elect Jim Webb
Note: Easily the most-covered story at SLANTblog during 2006 was Jim Webb’s march from a late blooming dark horse to unseating incumbent George Allen. My first post of 2006 on this story was on New Year’s Day. Who knew where it would lead?

What follows are selected excerpts/highlights of the meandering yarn of how Webb stumped the so-called experts and delivered control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats, as told by SLANTblog, on the fly:

Jan. 1: ...A web site devoted to boosting James Webb, a former Secretary of the Navy, into running against Sen. George Allen has been launched. Webb, a one-time Republican who is now an outspoken critic of the Bush war policy in Iraq, could make for an interesting player in Virginia politics.

Note: In February the cartoon riots roiled in Europe and Vice President Dick Cheney shot one of his hunting companions in Texas. President George Bush was busy as hell denying he even knew Jack Abramoff. So, a lot of people didn’t notice that a writer in Virginia had apparently changed his mind about running for office.

Feb. 8: ...In what runs contrary to a rumor that flashed across the Lefty Blogs [headlines] on Jan. 30, a rumor that passed for a few days as expert inside information, James Webb announced yesterday that he will seek the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican incumbent George Allen for his Senate seat.

Feb. 22: ...Meanwhile, Allen is the same affable, go-along-to-get-along rightwing senator he’s been all along. Yet, with the Bush administration spinning out of control, Allen’s role as a Bush/Cheney cheerleader probably won’t be much of a plus with most Virginia voters. Yes, with bad vibes all around him, Allen is likely to be campaigning this time around on his own personality and record, for what that’s worth.

Looking back on it, in a way he's never been tested. In statewide elections Allen defeated Mary Sue Terry and Chuck Robb; in both instances he benefited from having opponents whose political careers had peaked and begun to ebb.

Note: With March Madness in the air, George Mason stunned sports fans coast-to-coast with their four victories that put them in the Final Four. Mark Warner’s strangely “retouched” photo appeared on the cover of the New York Times Magazine. And, the contest for the Virginia Democratic senatorial nomination was starting to heat up.

Mar. 11: ...Yet, if one took seriously the catty chatter from some purebred Democrats -- who see themselves as way-more-donkey-than-thou -- newcomers can't necessarily be full members right away. No doubt they see Webb’s maverick streak as a threat, instead of an asset. They have recently sought to undermine his campaign with silly distractions that smell faintly of a swift boat-like strategy.

Well, it says here that if candidate Harris Miller wants a future in Virginia politics, beyond just being a well-connected guy, he should put the kibosh on this sort of thing, pronto! Chalk it up to bad advice, fire somebody and swear off such tactics from here on. Show some class.

Mar. 14: ...Wanting to know more about Harris Miller and having noted from Lefty Blogs that the candidate has a new web site, I clicked on the link. The first thing I saw was a head-scratching, boring blurb in bold type at the top of the page: “We Can Fix Washington.” Then this: “Together, we can clean up Washington and refocus our government on the right priorities.” Without going any further, I cringed and wondered: who in the world would put such banal, vague copy up as the most important thing for a viewer to see?

Was it a joke?

Note: In April, Bush created a new word -- “decider” -- to defend his Sec. of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. “I hear the voices, and I read the front page, and I know the speculation. But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best...” In Virginia an aggregator for political blogs was launched by Waldo Jaquith, just in time to make the Webb vs. Miller race more interesting.

May 22: ...Miller’s staff has a predicament, in that they have to be hoping for a low turnout in the primary. They think their strong suit is mostly longtime party regulars. So, the more the general public notices the contest, the more likely it is to be drawn to the more attractive individual with a more interesting resume. If independents vote, and they can, it's hard to imagine they would be Miller backers.

Miller is what? A behind-the-scene guy. A lobbyist. A wealthy businessman. Webb, once Secretary of the Navy, writes books that become movies. Finally, I’m surprised anyone with any real experience in the political game ever told Harris Miller he ought to run for public office.

May 29: ...Perhaps Webb’s strong suit is the powerful sense of dignity he projects. That’s something you can’t buy. Few politicians today have that.

Note: In June a brouhaha over a flier mocking Harris Miller erupted in the days before the primary, which Webb won, only to be instantly declared the hopeless underdog against Allen.

June 6: ...Perhaps the most bogus thing I’ve read repeatedly on political blogs is about their trump card, their “passion.” Oh yes, “passion” is dripping from their sleeves. “Passion” is their reason, and it’s their all-purpose monkey wrench of an excuse. Many of the Democrats’ busiest bloggers this season haven’t really been dealing with ideas, so much as they have personalities. In this era they prefer seeing elected officials as celebrities. They want their favorite politicians, even their paid staffers, to be “rock stars.”

To that notion I say this: A pack of celebrity worshippers drunk on cheap passion, poured from a screw-top bottle, singing along with the radio, turned up way too loud, may have lots of fun at the party. Then comes the hangover ... the lost wallet... the trouble from what you said that you don’t remember.

June 10: ...Yes, given the chance to say “no comment” to a question about the offending flier Miller whimpered to enlarge the story. It seems the Miller camp believes that pointing an accusatory finger at Webb’s camp over this rather juvenile piece of propaganda, in order to extend its life as a concocted issue, is benefiting their candidate. They don’t mind if someone sees that stance as similar to the position of the Muslim zealots who called for the death of any cartoonist who draws a picture of The Prophet.

June 15: ...Well, I’m absolutely delighted that Webb won. My short take on his success is that Webb represented change and hope to the disillusioned. Furthermore, his candidacy said there are honest Republicans and other moderate conservatives who have finally given up on denial. They have wised up -- too much Iraq, Katrina and sleaze -- and if that trend picks up steam it threatens to scald the incumbent, George Allen.

Note: In July it still seemed to many following the Webb vs. Allen race that Webb’s lack of money and inability to unite the Democratic Party spelled doom. There was much speculation that Allen would hardly need to campaign in Virginia in the fall, so he could continue to concentrate on Iowa and New Hampshire. Then on Aug. 11 a video recording made by Webb volunteer S.R. Sidarth changed the campaign.

Aug. 18: ...The best way to keep the Macaca gaffe story churning -- and helping Webb -- is not to continue to throw racist charges at George Allen, as if he had just burned a cross on Richmond civil rights hero Oliver Hill’s front lawn. Plus, by using old racial terms that have a lot of baggage -- words you may see as the most attention-getting equivalent of what Allen said -- you may be getting a lot of hits on your counters, but that doesn’t automatically mean you’re making new friends for your candidate.

The story now is the goofy series of denials from Allen’s camp. It’s Allen’s other awkward moves to make the story go away. It’s the silly contortions his defenders have twisted themselves into, in order to defend their man. It’s the stupidity of his acting like a bully, in the first place, demeaning an opponent’s volunteer -- while that volunteer is rolling tape in a video camera.

Aug. 21: ...Then, as the Macaca story morphed from concern and outrage over the racist aspects of his loutish remarks at Breaks Interstate Park -- by midweek -- something else began to bubble to the surface: Perhaps George Allen’s aw-shucks, nice guy, poor man’s Ronald Reagan persona has been, and remains, just about as phony as it gets.

Perhaps that video tape showed much more than a mere slip of the tongue by a closet racist. It may have also revealed a bullying personality that serves to undermine the entire easy-to-like Southern gentleman act Allen has been affecting for his entire career in Virginia politics.

Aug. 24: ...As a media expert, [Dick] Wadhams has looked more like a rube than a guy who really knows how to play the game. He’s actually done almost as much as his boss -- a clumsy ex-jock who got caught slurring his faux good-ol'-boy party attitude -- to keep this story at the top of the news. Which has kept the Allen campaign in total damage-control mode.

As long as Wadhams, the high-priced spin doctor, casts Allen as the victim in this scenario the feeding frenzy isn’t going to stop. He doesn’t seem to know another way to play it.

Sept. 3: ...Time will tell. For a match-up that was supposed to be a cakewalk for the incumbent, Allen, the polls now rate the contest a toss-up. Still, the role the Internet played as pro-Jim Webb bloggers spread the juicy news of the tape’s existence and ready availability -- via -- is something that political pros all over the country are studying right now.

We now live in a post-Macaca world.

Actually watching the one-minute video offered the viewer something more than a brief glimpse at a racially insensitive blunder -- as would a short newspaper article -- it revealed a glowering insider, Sen. George Allen, lording it over a perceived outsider.

Sept. 12: ...As I recall it, [Sen. Benny] Lambert was opposed to the strong-mayor to be elected by a citywide vote concept that carried Richmond three years ago by an overwhelming margin. In that stance he stood with Sen. Henry Marsh and broke with Mayor Doug Wilder, the man who spearheaded the change in Richmond’s City Charter, and who then went on to be elected mayor in the next year. Wilder carried all nine districts in Richmond. Thus, it should be noted that Lambert’s influence over voters in Richmond is not at all what it once was.

Sept. 17: ...On a zero-to-ten scale Jim Webb gets a six for his solid performance. George Allen earned a four, at best, for his.

Moreover, Webb’s camp won’t have to release a bunch of post-debate spin to control the damage. That, while George Allen’s apologists are going to be as busy as bees for the next few days trying to explain away his waffling on the biggest question of the debate -- do you stand with Sen. John Warner, Sen. John McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, or do you stand with President George Bush? On which side of the torture chasm do you stand?

Sept. 19: ...For a little over five weeks, now, Republican Sen. George Allen has been shooting at his political opponent, Democrat Jim Webb, and mostly hitting his own cowboy boots. Allen has blown so many holes in his footwear it’s a wonder the man could stand up after yesterday’s headline-making debate in McLean.

The pattern started on Aug. 11 with his use of the word “macaca” in a telling (perhaps drunken?) episode that was caught on video tape and widely viewed. Since then Allen’s various explanations of his bullying behavior, especially the meaning of the unusual word, have been spectacularly unconvincing. Yesterday, during the debate, the pattern continued with his strange reaction to a sudden question about his ancestry.

Sept. 21: ...Today Allen admits he knew that his mother’s father was Jewish when the question was asked. At the same time, he also had to know it had been speculated in print over the years that he'd been hiding his Jewish roots. So Allen knew that question was coming, his bluster was an obvious stalling maneuver.

But because Allen simply didn’t want to answer it, the question was too personal? While that stance is strong on chutzpah, it’s fatally weak on finesse.

During the week the Allen camp has awkwardly played every angle of this business it can see. Yet, other than his professional apologists, groupies and hardcore following, I just don’t know who is going to buy this “victim” pose. As a strategy, it seems much more likely to earn Allen another batch of late-night TV jokes at his expense.

Sept. 24: ...Today’s penalty flag must be thrown on the A-Team blog, which is trying to give us a bogus history lesson on European political art, in order to muddy the water surrounding Sen. George Allen’s awkward performance this past week, to do with his Jewish roots. Today, on Rosh Hashanah, the inflammatory name of Julius Streicher was invoked by the A-Team to try to score some cheap points on Allen’s opponent, Jim Webb.

Sept. 30: ...On top of that Allen’s aggressive-only strategists have seemed blind to the trouble for Allen their galling blame-the-other-guy strategy is causing. It is drying up the reservoir of good will Allen had built up over his political career. It is flushing old grudges out of the woodwork because now some who held back before can imagine Allen, the longtime bully, losing this race.

To cast all that as something the Webb camp has orchestrated, as part of a conspiracy with the mainstream media, is preposterous. Has Mr. Wadhams come to Virginia to try to make us believe the conservative Richmond Times-Dispatch is in on that conspiracy?

Oct. 1: ...When you’re the Republican incumbent who’s just lost 16 percentage points in the latest opinion poll, then both the Sons of Confederate Veterans and Saturday Night Live come after you in the same week, well ... that could strip a gear.

SNL’s season-opener featured a rollicking George Allen sequence during the Weekend Update, which mocked him for his recent run of bad publicity -- macaca a made-up word; ham sandwiches; deer head in the mailbox. No doubt, this amusing development, which will surely spawn more popular videos to be viewed on the Internet, will have the sinking senator’s spinners working overtime.

Oct. 25: ... [Mayor Doug] Wilder spoke of the billions being spent in Iraq “every week,” then brought up the fact that FEMA just recently turned down calls to offer aid to flood victims in Richmond’s soggy lower Battery Park neighborhood. The implication seemed to be that the federal government would have money for such problems were it not for the quagmire in Iraq.

Both men are decorated veterans: Wilder served in Korea; Webb in Vietnam.

Wilder was asked why he did not wait until the 11th hour -- the election is still 13 days away -- to make his endorsement of Webb, as he did for Governor Tim Kaine in the gubernatorial contest last year. Wilder laughed, saying it had come somewhat later than what Webb’s camp might have wanted. The room laughed with him.

Webb got the bigger laugh by cracking that it was more like “a 10:30 endorsement.”

Oct. 28: ...In what has become a gritty, no-holds-barred style fight for Sen. George Allen’s seat in the U.S. Senate the candidates’ raw character is being revealed in the crucible of the last round. Allen’s first punch thrown -- “Allen blasts Webb over his novels” -- came up from the floor to land well below his opponent’s belt. With the fight tied on the scorecards Allen’s surprise bolo punch drew a big reaction from the crowd.

Jim Webb’s supporters in the lathered up audience cried, “Foul! Low-blow!

Webb, who until this moment in the long campaign had punched and blocked punches with a steady, practiced restraint, gathered himself to respond.

Saturday afternoon at a rally in Annandale, Webb cut loose with his sharpest counterpunch of the entire fight. This time his full weight was behind the blow.

Nov. 4: ...Allen’s ubiquitous television commercials are now claiming Webb’s writings are “deviant” and that they “demean” women. Well, it’s no wonder Allen’s handlers want him to focus on fiction. In the last 12 weeks reality has been awfully tough on Allen’s supposedly easy run to win a second term in the U.S. Senate.

In reality, Allen’s record as a senator stands in obedient compliance with the Bush administration’s woefully unpopular positions on many issues, including the war in Iraq and stem cell research. Reality now has Allen trailing in the most recent polls, having dropped over 10 points in the last month.

Reality now has Allen’s heretofore useful image as an aw-shucks Southern gentleman in tatters. Reality also has comedians poking fun at Allen as a buffoon, a total phony.

It was in the real world that a youthful Jim Webb survived combat missions as a marine in Vietnam. That experience served as the foundation for his career, both as a writer and in public service as an expert on military matters in the Reagan administration. In the real world Jim Webb has a built a resume that testifies to his many accomplishments. Webb has won widespread praise for his fiction, as well as his reportage on international politics.

Attacking an award-winning writer for his body of work is an extreme measure. In truth, only desperation or stupidity would make a political campaign do it, because the professional spin doctors know full well that the press -- with writers at the heart of it -- is not going to like such a tactic much, no matter whether they lean to the left or the right.

So, Allen’s attack on Webb’s profession -- a lurch backward into the bad old days of book-burning -- is the surest sign we’ve seen that Allen knows he’s behind Webb and time is running out.

Nov. 8: ...In Virginia, as much as I applaud Jim Webb’s apparent victory, I have to say that George Allen did more to hurt himself than anything anyone opposing him did. History will probably say Allen was the first thought-to-be-invincible politician to defeated by the Internet, by way of the famous “Macaca” YouTube video.

Then, once Allen’s gaffes let his rather politically inexperienced opponent into the race, Webb swelled up and managed to make himself into a better campaigner than a lot of people had thought he could.

Nov. 9: ...Shortly after 3 p.m. today in Alexandria, after being introduced by Sen. John Warner, who spoke of Sen. George Allen’s “bright future,” Allen threw a football into the crowd, caught it when it was thrown back to him, conceded that Jim Webb had won the election and announced he would not be seeking a recount.

Allen thanked God, his wife, his children, his mother, his staff and campaign volunteers. Saying there is a “time and place for everything,” Allen added, “we live to fight another day.” Then the ex-quarterback threw the football back and forth one last time, at least for today.

Nov. 22: ...The Virginia political blogosphere has been getting a lot of scrutiny this fall. And, deservedly so. Without the busy blogosphere’s input Jim Webb’s upset of George Allen would surely not have happened as it did, if it would have happened at all.

Then again, without Allen’s own videotaped gaffes and botched damage control, the tireless work of Webb’s blogging hired hands, and his many more blogging amateurs, probably wouldn’t have mattered all that much.

Still, when Allen did begin to meltdown in August, the bloggers for Webb were already in place. Moreover, they were practiced and poised to bury Allen, which they did quite effectively. Watching the mainstream media covering the blogosphere’s role in exacerbating the Allen campaign’s meltdown was fascinating.

Note: That’s it. A look back at the making of a political upset that was felt across the nation. It was the top story for 2006 in Virginia. And, the best part is -- it had a happy ending, not unlike a Frank Capra movie.

Happy New Year!
Art by F.T. Rea


Josh Chernila said...

Fantastic coverage. Brave reporting. Brilliant insight.

Thanks for everything you did this year, Terry.

F.T. Rea said...

Josh Chernila,

Thanks for the kind words. And, for your role in pulling the upset off, I offer my sincere congratulations.

thegools said...

Thanks for that.

I still sometimes am amazed that we/Webb pulled this off. This year's end result was far sweeter than I could have imagined.