2008 President Politics
In the year 2006, you would think that potential American presidential nominees would keep their racist thoughts to themselves. Apparently not!
The Sunday Times, London, August 20th 2006
Republican golden boy trips up on a single taboo word
Sarah Baxter, Washington
JUST as the spelling of “potatoe” on a visit to a school finished Dan Quayle’s career as US vice-president in 1992, so the obscure racial slur “macaca” may spell doom for George Allen, the Virginia senator who is a favourite among Republican party insiders to win the 2008 presidential nomination.
One ill-judged word can blow an entire campaign. Conservatives are wondering whether Allen uttered it last week when he rounded on a young political activist of Indian descent who was trailing him with a video camera on behalf of his Democratic opponent in this November’s Senate re- election race.
“This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, Macaca, or whatever his name is . . . He’s following us everywhere,” Allen said in front of an all-white crowd of Republican supporters. “Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.”
The 20-year-old film-maker, S R Sidarth, who hails from Virginia, was no political naïf. As his grandparents pointed out proudly, his great-grandfather was a close associate of Mahatma Gandhi. Nobody was quite sure what “macaca” meant but it was clear that Allen had stepped in it.
A macaque is a monkey and while the word can be used in French to describe somebody who is simply “monkeying around”, it is also an ethnic slur against north Africans. Allen claimed that he was making a playful reference to Sidarth’s “mohawk” hairstyle, but his candid camera tormentor had a full head of hair.
Allen’s mother is French Tunisian and the senator speaks French, despite his carefully crafted tobacco-spitting, cowboy-boots-wearing, homespun good ol’ boy image. He prefers voters to know that his father, a friend of Ronald Reagan, the former president, was a famous American football coach. Whether or not the remark was racist, picking on the young Indian was said to have revealed his mean streak.
Allen is a top choice for the 2008 nomination among conservatives who fear that John McCain, the more famous sentaor, and Rudolph Giuliani, the former mayor of New York, are too socially liberal.
It was with some anguish that Allen said last week: “What bothers me most about this is it’s so contrary to who I am. It tears my guts up.” As a former governor of Virginia, Allen has not had a reputation as a racist. Not long ago, however, there was a damaging article in The New Republic about his fondness for the Confederate flag, emblem of the slave-owning south.
“It will always form part of a discussion about his racial sensitivity,” a close associate of Allen admitted, “but George W Bush was dogged by questions about his service in the National Guard. That’s what happens in politics.”
Bruce Bartlett, a former Reagan official and author of Impostor, an attack on Bush’s high spending, said: “Conservatives are feeling annoyed by Allen’s stupidity. He’s a nice guy and right about the issues, but you come away feeling he is not ready for prime time.”
Tom Edmunds, a Republican party consultant, disagreed. “George Allen is a gentleman. I’ve seen the incident on tape and he wasn’t being mean, he was a little bit feisty. His strength will always be that he is a mainstream conservative.”
They both believe, however, that McCain’s hand is strengthening, even though he turns 70 at the end of this month. “His people are doing their homework and know how to deal with nuances,” said Edmunds.
McCain has been mending fences with evangelical Christians, paying a flattering number of visits to the handful of states that determine the presidential primaries and positioning himself as Bush’s more competent natural successor.
The most recent poll by National Journal of 103 Republican congressional “insiders” put McCain ahead of Allen by 61 votes to 19. It is a remarkable turnaround since last December, when Allen pipped McCain as the party insiders’ first choice by 39 to 38 votes.
A frequent opinion poll favourite is Giuliani, who led New York’s response to the September 11 terror attacks in 2001 and who last week delivered a barn-storming performance at a fundraiser in South Carolina.
Giuliani’s post-9/11 heroic status is to come under scrutiny this week with the publication of Grand Illusion: The Untold Story of Rudy Giuliani. Its authors blame him for the chaos that reigned during his finest hour, including poor communications between firefighters and police and a decision to base the city’s Office of Emergency Management inside the Twin Towers after they had already been hit by terrorists in 1993.
Mitt Romney, another well regarded Republican candidate and the governor of Massachusetts, has the opposite problem to Allen. George Romney, his father, was touted as a strong contender for the presidency until he claimed that he had been “brainwashed” into supporting the war in Vietnam. To his dying day it was all that people remembered him for.
Jane Romney, Mitt’s sister, said last week: “The brainwash thing — has it affected us? You bet . . . Mitt is naturally a diplomat, but I think that made him more so. He’s not going to put himself out on a limb. He’s more cautious, more scripted.”
Romney, critics advise, should take a few more risks while Allen, who once threatened to knock his opponents’ “soft teeth down their whiney throats” ought to think before he speaks.