George Allen and the N-word: When "baseless" doesn't mean "false"

Allen says he doesn't remember everything he has ever said over the past 30 years.

Published October 10, 2006 4:02PM (EDT)

In his final televised debate with Democratic challenger Jim Webb, Virginia Sen. George Allen complained Monday night about "baseless" allegations that he has used the "N-word" to describe African-Americans. Is "baseless" the same thing as "false"? Well, not exactly, it seems.

As Virginia's Daily Press reports, the debate's moderator followed up by asking Allen if was calling his accusers "liars." The senator's backpedaling response: "I don't know everything I've said over the past 30 years."

Allen then said what he has said several times before: The N-word wasn't part of his "vocabulary." If Allen is using "vocabulary" to mean what we think it means -- the "stock of words" a person knows or uses -- then he's plainly the one who's lying now. There isn't an English-speaking adult alive in America today -- and certainly not one who has surrounded himself with Confederate flags and cozied up to the modern-day version of the KKK -- who doesn't know the meaning of the N-word. Moreover, we're betting that there aren't many of us who haven't used the word, at least in an academic, nonracist sort of way, at least once or twice in our lifetime. The N-word is part of the American vocabulary. There is no way that Allen can credibly claim it isn't or wasn't part of his.

What Allen probably means -- and maybe would even say if it didn't sound so, you know, French -- is that the N-word wasn't a part of his usual "repertoire." That would fit better with Allen's claim that he just can't remember everything he has ever said: Yeah, maybe he blurted it out in some unguarded moment somewhere, but it's not like he used it all of the time. The problem is, there's plenty of evidence to suggest that that characterization would be a lie, too. A couple of former Allen acquaintances tell a columnist for the Charlottesville Daily Progress that Allen used the N-word on a regular basis. "He just threw it around so casually, it's like he didn't know any better," says a woman who used to host poker parties that Allen attended. Whenever Allen was dealt a black card he didn't like, the woman says, "he would refer to it as a 'nig--- card' he needed to get rid of." One former college football teammate has told Salon's Michael Scherer that the N-word was simply "the terminology" Allen used to describe African-Americans in his youth.

If the moderator at Monday night's debate followed up with specific examples like these -- if he asked Allen about the allegation that he once stuffed a deer's head in a mailbox in a black neighborhood -- there's no sign of it in any of the debate coverage we've read so far. The Washington Post's Marc Fisher wonders today if "editors and reporters" are ever going to make Allen explain how "the young man who relished using racial slurs" somehow became a senator who boasts of his newfound racial sensitivity. They haven't done much of that yet, and Allen, stuck in a neck-and-neck reelection race he should have won easily, is making it awfully hard for them to do it now. While Webb stuck around Monday night to take questions from reporters, the Daily Press says Allen "wasn't there to respond, having been hustled from the building" immediately after the debate ended.

By Tim Grieve

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

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