Allen on race, Webb on women

The Virginia candidates for the U.S. Senate debate.

Published September 18, 2006 1:33PM (EDT)

Sunday's "Meet the Press" debate between Sen. George Allen and former Navy Secretary Jim Webb provided Virginia voters with a clear contrast between the men on Iraq. Allen said that he stood by his October 2002 vote giving George W. Bush authority to use military force in Iraq. "You can't say, 'Gosh,' five years later" -- well, four, but who's counting? -- and "second-guess" the decision to go to war now, he said. Webb showed that he wasn't second-guessing -- that he had opposed the war even before it started, and that the warnings he had given Allen then had fallen on the deaf ears of a man offering blind loyalty to his president.

So there are differences between George Allen and Jim Webb, and that point can't be obscured. But reading through the transcript of the debate this morning, it's hard not to be struck more by the distressingly similar ways in which the men addressed questions of race and gender, respectively.

We're all pretty familiar with Allen's race problems now: the Confederate flag, the noose, his opposition to the 1991 Civil Rights Act and a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, "macaca." Webb's gender problem? Writings about women in the military, including a 1979 magazine article, titled "Women Can't Fight," in which he called a Naval Academy dorm housing 4,000 men and 300 women "a horny woman's dream."

We'd like to be able to say that both men dealt with their issues Sunday with appropriate levels of sensitivity and remorse. Instead, both seemed determined to have it both ways.

Allen offered up a new and contradictory explanation for his "macaca" moment -- he called "macaca" a "made-up word" and said he'd "never heard it" before he used it to describe an Indian-American college student -- and then went this way, that way on the Confederate flag. Tim Russert asked the senator about the message his embrace of the flag might have sent to African-Americans. Allen said he understands now -- in a way that he apparently didn't when he was the governor of Virginia -- that the flag represents "repression, segregation and violence" against African-Americans. But in pretty much the same breath, he said: "I look at the flag, also, and some others do, as heritage and as regional pride."

For his part, Webb said he regrets the "horny woman's dream" line and any problems his article may have caused women at the Naval Academy. "I've said -- there's many, there's many pieces in this article that if, if I were a, you know, a more mature individual, I wouldn't have written," he said. "And I've, and I've tried to say that and I've tried to show by my conduct when I had positions in government that I, I am open to, to assisting women succeed in all the areas where that's possible."

But there was a "some of my best friends are women" quality to Webb's limited mea culpa -- he said that when he visited Afghanistan as a writer a couple of years ago, he got the "ride of my life" from a "woman pilot" -- and he had his back-and-forth moments, too. Russert quoted from a 1997 article in which Webb said that "political and military leaders must have the courage to ask clearly in what areas our current policies toward women in the military are hurting, rather than helping, the task of defending the United States," and then he asked Webb to explain which policies on women are hurting the United States now.

Webb: Well, I think one of the things I was pointing out in that article was the -- was where the political process interferes with the military being able to make its own decision on those matters. And one of the things that I did when I was secretary of the Navy was I turned this over to the military side, to the uniformed side ... I put a task force together that was 50 percent male, 50 percent female, with a truth-teller on it, a woman officer who could walk into my office anytime she wanted. They went to all the Navy installations around the world. And then instead of reporting to me, the political side, they reported to the, the chiefs of the warfare specialties and then as the, the uniformed service reported to me. And that's how we opened up all of those wells, so ...

Russert: Bottom line, do you now believe that women can, in fact, provide men with combat leadership?

Webb: Absolutely. Other than that they're ...

Russert: So that's a change.

Webb: Well, no, no. What I'm saying is, right now, I believe the situation is where a lot of people wanted it to be back in 1970, 19--9--1980 when people -- social experimentation was in place rather than allowing the military to make these decisions ...

Russert: But it is 2006. You have not changed your mind at all about women's ability to lead men?

Webb: No. I did not say that. I -- I'm fully comfortable with women's ability to lead men.

Russert: So you have changed your mind?

Webb: What, what, what Im saying is, in areas like the infantry and the artillery, where -- which now remain all-male, I'm comfortable with that, too. And Sen. Allen has his own issues on this, by the way. As recently as 2000, saying women didn't belong in foxholes, and maybe you should ask him about that.

By Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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