George Allen damage control, or "macaca" meets the ham sandwich

The Virginia senator embraces his Jewish heritage.

Published September 20, 2006 4:22PM (EDT)

When you're in a hole, stop digging.

You'd think an authentically folksy good ol' boy like George Allen would have heard something like that, if not while growing up in the suburbs of California and Illinois, then maybe while taking classes as a freshman at UCLA. But for Allen and the people running his campaign, this basic tenet of damage control seems about as foreign as a dark-skinned college kid at a lily-white campaign rally.

When Allen called S.R. Sidarth "macaca" last month, he and his campaign virtually guaranteed day after day of negative coverage by trotting out a variety of conflicting explanations for why the senator said what he said. Allen didn't know what the word "macaca" meant. It sort of sounds like "mohawk." Allen had never heard the word before. He'd heard it from campaign aides, who coined the word as a sort of mash-up between "mohawk" and "caca." And then it was something Allen had "made up" again; he'd "never heard it" before he said the word himself.

What does all of that have to do with Allen's latest woes, the ones brought on by his angry outburst when a reporter asked him about his Jewish heritage? Everything, it seems, and don't just take our word for it. In an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch -- the same one in which he says that he still enjoys a "ham sandwich," his grandfather's faith notwithstanding -- Allen suggests that the "macaca" moment and the "Jewish? Who knew?" issue are all of a piece. It's all about "the question, the assertion, the offensive remarks that your mother taught you this slur, and that somehow it's because ... either she or her father was Jewish."


Perhaps it's time to unpack this a bit. Shortly after Allen called Sidarth "macaca," the amateur lexicographers among us noted that the word is a racial slur, at least in northern Africa. The amateur biographers among us noted that Allen's mother was born and raised in Tunisia, a former French colony in northern Africa. And the professional cynics among us wondered if "macaca" wasn't some sort of made-up or mashed-up word but rather a slur that had some currency in the household where Allen grew up.

Maybe that Allen's mother taught him the word "macaca" counts as an "assertion" and maybe it's an "offensive" one, assuming for a moment that it's not true. But if somebody is suggesting that Etty Allen taught young George Felix Allen a racist slur because either she or her father was Jewish -- well, we haven't heard that from anyone, except for Sen. Allen and his campaign. "Saying your mother was a racist -- that was exactly the intent and the thrust of the question," Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams tells the Washington Post.

Now, we're certainly impressed by Allen's efforts to stand up for his mother. If we thought somebody was calling our mother a racist, we'd have a few words to say on the subject, too. But then we get to the other part of this story, the part where Allen has to explain how it is that, while there's been speculation about his family's heritage for more than a decade, and while he's been talking about his grandfather's incarceration by Nazis since at least 2000, he didn't learn of his grandfather's faith until he read about it in a magazine last month.

How could that possibly be?

Well, Allen says, it's his mother's fault. "Some may find it odd that I have not probed deeply into the details of my family history, but it's a fact," Allen said in a statement issued Tuesday. "Whenever we would ask my mother through the years about our family background on her side, the answer always was, 'Who cares about that?'"

That's the right answer, of course, at least when it comes to choosing a senator. It doesn't matter if Allen is Jewish. What might matter to voters -- and legitimately so -- is the way in which Allen has handled the question. A Charlottesville Daily Progress columnist who has covered Allen for decades says the only time he has ever asked for a correction came when the columnist wrote about Allen's Jewish ancestors. When reporters asked about the senator's heritage recently, the Post says, campaign aides refused to comment and refused to put the question to Allen. And when a reporter finally got the chance to do so at a debate this week, Allen exploded, calling the question an "aspersion" and encouraging the boos and hisses that emanated from supporters in the audience.

A man who's quick to defend the Confederate flag as a symbol of "heritage and regional pride" has been awfully hesitant to acknowledge his own heritage, one that might cast a little cloud on the boot-wearing, tobacco-chewing, racist-coddling image he has created for himself. Should that matter to anyone looking for the "authentic" candidate in the Virginia Senate race? Sure. Will it hurt Allen with the kind of folks who clapped and cheered when he asked them to join him in welcoming "macaca" to America? It's probably too soon to tell. Allen is already off courting a new voting constituency just in case. The senator said in his statement Tuesday that he's proud to be at least a little bit Jewish, and his campaign attacked Democratic challenger Jim Webb as the real anti-Semite in the race.

By Tim Grieve

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

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