National Commentary

Nicholas F. Benton: Allen

It’s been a few weeks, and now we can call it. Last month’s “macaca” remark by Virginia Sen. George Allen was a “career ending moment.” It sometimes happens like that in politics. A single moment, a single phrase, can sometimes make or break an election or an entire career.

    Gov. George Romney said he was “brainwashed” by U.S. military officials when he toured Vietnam in the early 1970s, and he became toast.
    President Ronald Reagan said, “There you go again,” in a national TV debate seeking a second term, and he became a shoe-in.
    In these cases, the remarks triggered a sea-change, revealing something new and unexpected about the candidate. Romney was on a roll in pursuit of the GOP presidential nomination, a straight-laced Mormon operating with their height of dignity and decorum.
    Nobody — nobody in his own party, especially — cared whether what he said was true or not. He’d been talking about being restricted in what he was allowed to see on a tour of Vietnam, and he was undoubtedly right on.
    Back in those days one simply didn’t accuse our nation’s own military of “brainwashing” a politician. It was a shocker, and a career ender.
    The same with Reagan in 1984. Many considered him on the political ropes, already too old and shaky to carry out an effective reelection bid. Indeed, in his first debate with Walter Mondale, he was unsteady and hesitant. Pundits were predicting his demise.
    But he came out gunning in the second debate, and when he cocked his head slightly to the side, put on a slight smile and knocked Mondale to the turf by repeating, two or three times during the debate, “There you go again!,” you knew that the old Reagan was back and that he’d do just fine. It was unexpected.
    George Allen’s “macaca” remark last month rises to the level of these rare cases. What made it shocking was that it came as a surprise to almost everyone.
    This was not what anyone thought the tall, dignified, almost presidential Sen. Allen would stoop to. It was entirely out of character, at least the kind of character that most people understood Mr. Allen to have.
    The remark was crude and degrading. And as if just to make sure that no one might excuse the senator for a slip of the tongue or unwitting indiscretion, he went on to further indict himself by suggesting the young, American born citizen of Indian descent, the object of his derision, somehow didn’t understand his own homeland. “Welcome to America,” Allen said, taunting the young man.
    In terms of politics, this was like finding that charismatic old Baton Rouge TV evangelist shacked up with a hooker in a cheap motel. It was a shock when it happened, something totally unexpected, an amazingly swift fall from grace.
    Three consequences of that single remark by Allen seem certainties:
    1. It will not go away. It will intensify. The more time passes, the more contemptible the remark becomes for more people: the more intentional, the more revealing of an ugly inner mental map, the more vicious and racist it seems. It simply was not an innocent little miscue. It was much nastier, and the more the public has time to think about that, the more it is coming to that conclusion.
    2. Forget completely any presidential ambitions that Allen might have had. He’s history on that front. With one word, he went from darling dark horse to zero, zilch, nada. There is simply no way that a party seeking a candidate who can draw from a sufficient cross-section of our increasingly-ethnically crazy quilt America would ever consider Allen. No way, not a chance.
    3. The incident has overnight transformed the Virginia race for the U.S. Senate. Before, despite shifting trends nationally, the incumbent Sen. Allen was considered a shoe-in for re-election this November. Upstart Democratic challenger James Webb couldn’t get anyone’s attention at the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee offices just across the Potomac. Webb wasn’t even the first choice of his own state party’s elites in the June primary. But all that has now changed dramatically.
    One poll, conducted by the Wall Street Journal and Zogby, shows Webb now ahead by a point or two. He’s proving to be a formidable campaigner and there’s no evidence that Allen can turn things around. The DSCC is now committing financial support, and the state’s party leadership is fully revving its machinery.
    George Allen cannot reverse this trend, because what he revealed in that one word last month was an unmistakable truth about himself. He can’t get away with insisting it was anything less. Perhaps if he confessed he’s a racist and sincerely promised to change, he might have a chance of regaining a portion of what he’s lost. But he’s like George Bush when it comes to things like that, and to a lot of other things, now that you mention it.