Virginia Senator George Allen’s loss earlier this month to Jim Webb was more than just a win for the Democratic Party, which needed Allen’s seat to gain a majority in the Senate. It was a victory for decency over boorishness.
For his decision to forgo a state-funded recount of his opponent Jim Webb’s 9,000-vote victory, Allen gained effusive praise from the media, which, entirely because of his own deficiencies as a candidate, had made him into a punching bag over the summer. Allen’s self-effacing decision probably had more to do with his quixotic hopes of resuscitating his once buoyant 2008 presidential prospects than it did with any genuine concern for the integrity of the Commonwealth of Virginia’s election process. Sadly for Allen, it appears that his political career is over, something that civilized Americans of all political stripes ought to applaud. The Virginia senate election was nothing less than a referendum on whether acknowledged bigots ought to hold Federal office.
By now, Allen’s missteps on the campaign trail are legend. Most infamously, at campaign event in August, Allen pointed to S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year old Webb staffer of Indian descent who was videotaping Allen, and called him a “macaca.” The word is a French epithet for people of North African descent, (North Africa, India, same difference!), and too precise for anyone to just randomly mumble, as Allen later claimed.
If there had been any doubt beforehand that George Allen was a racist fool, the macaca moment erased it, at least for those not entirely blinded by partisan interests. In that one episode, Allen demonstrated his unfitness for public office. No doubt many public officials hold racist sentiments — but we can only rebuke those who acknowledge them. The decision in Virginia, then, was a simple affair. Either you supported a bigot or you did not.
This was hardly the first time Allen’s racism had become an issue in the campaign. Over the summer, The New Republic revealed Allen’s troubling history as a confederate sympathizer (wearing a Confederate flag pin for his high school graduation photo, putting a Confederate flag plate on the front on his car in law school, et. al.) in spite of the fact that Allen was raised in California, not the Deep South. In the months leading up to the November election, various individuals from Allen’s past came forward alleging that the former Senator had used the “N-word” throughout this life, with apparent abandon. In one particularly nasty episode, regarding a discussion about large turtles in a pond near Charlottesville, Allen told an acquaintance “only the niggers around here eat ‘em.”
Allen’s use of the word “macaca” was not only reflective of his innermost feelings but also demonstrated blatant stupidity. Someone who utters such a word — twice, no less — in front of a large crowd while being videotaped is simply too thick to hold the office of county dog catcher, never mind United States Senator.
As Allen’s boorish behavior began to cost him his once seemingly unbeatable lead, he descended to the most pathetic depths. His campaign scoured Webb’s readily available Vietnam-era novels and issued press releases with out-of-context quotes screaming that Webb was a misogynist and a glorifier of child sexual abuse. This last-minute act of desperation was wholly reflective of Allen’s anti-intellectual approach to politics, and did little to dent Webb’s growing lead in the polls.
It was not that long ago when candidates in the South actually had to use racism — oftentimes explicitly — to win elections. That overt bigotry would be the downfall of a candidate (rather than part of his strategy) speaks to the changes — ever so slow — that our country has witnessed over the past century in terms of race relations. Yet before we get our hopes up it is necessary to realize that this individual election victory does not necessarily indicate a change amongst white southern voters writ large, as Virginia — thanks to the northern part of the state’s urbanization and an influx of immigrants (many from countries with people that Senator Allen might refer to as “macacas”) — is becoming “more of a mid-Atlantic state than it was before,” in the words of Ken Mehlman. By this, the outgoing Chairman of the RNC seems to have inadvertently implied that it is a state where Republicans will have a difficult time appealing to racist fears in order to win white votes.
Ironically, George Allen did his country a great service in calling Sidarth a macaca, indeed, a greater public service than his time in the U.S Senate. His sincerity ensured that the republic will be spared the threat of his ever becoming president in 2008.
James Kirchick is assistant to the Editor-in-Chief of The New Republic.