Beyond Macaca: The Photograph That Haunts George Allen
Barnstorming around Virginia in the re-election campaign that Republican Senator George Allen hopes will provide the impetus for his 2008 run for the presidency, he has suddenly been forced on the defensive. Time and again, he has felt compelled to explain that his mocking of S.R. Sidarth, a young Indian-American staff member for his Democratic opponent, as "macaca," or monkey, was an unintentional gaffe. "It was a mistake. I made a mistake," he told a reporter from a local NBC affiliate at a campaign stop on Thursday. Hours later, he told the ABC affiliate, "It was a mistake, I was wrong." On Fox News's Sean Hannity show, he echoed, "It was a mistake."
But was it an isolated "mistake"?
Only a decade ago, as governor of Virginia, Allen personally initiated an association with the Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC), the successor organization to the segregationist White Citizens Council and among the largest white supremacist groups.
In 1996, when Governor Allen entered the Washington Hilton Hotel to attend the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual gathering of conservative movement organizations, he strode to a booth at the entrance of the exhibition hall festooned with two large Confederate flags--a booth operated by the CCC, at the time a co-sponsor of CPAC. After speaking with CCC founder and former White Citizens Council organizer Gordon Lee Baum and two of his cohorts, Allen suggested that they pose for a photograph with then-National Rifle Association spokesman and actor Charlton Heston. The photo appeared in the Summer 1996 issue of the CCC's newsletter, the Citizens Informer.
According to Baum, Allen had not naively stumbled into a chance meeting with unfamiliar people. He knew exactly who and what the CCC was about and, from Baum's point of view, was engaged in a straightforward political transaction. "It helped us as much as it helped him," Baum told me. "We got our bona fides." And so did Allen.
Descended from the White Citizens' Councils that battled integration in the Jim Crow South, the CCC is designated a "hate group" by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In its "Statement of Principles," the CCC declares, "We also oppose all efforts to mix the races of mankind, to promote non-white races over the European-American people through so-called "affirmative action" and similar measures, to destroy or denigrate the European-American heritage, including the heritage of the Southern people, and to force the integration of the races."
The CCC has hosted several conservative Republican legislators at its conferences, including former Representative Bob Barr of Georgia and Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. But mostly it has been a source of embarrassment to Republicans hoping to move their party beyond its race-baiting image. Former Reagan speechwriter and conservative pundit Peggy Noonan pithily declared that anyone involved with the CCC "does not deserve to be in a leadership position in America."
Asked whether Allen supports or deplores the CCC, John Reid, his communications director, pleaded ignorance. "I am unaware of the group you mention or their agenda and because we have no record of the Senator having involvement with them I cannot offer you any opinion on them," Reid told me in an e-mail response.
In posing for a picture that he knew the CCC would use to promote itself and him, and would be circulated to true believers, Allen joined a tradition of conservative Southern politicians seeking to burnish their neo-Confederate credentials. In 2003, former Republican National Committee chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour took a photograph with revelers at the CCC's "Blackhawk Rally," a fundraising event for white "private academies." In the subsequent hailstorm of media criticism, after reporters discovered that the CCC had posted photos of Barbour on its website, Barbour pointedly refused to demand that the group remove them. Though Barbour came from an old and influential Mississippi family in Yazoo, he had spent a long time as a lobbyist in Washington. "In Mississippi, one of the biggest problems he had was they thought he [Barbour] was a scalawag. So it didn't hurt him in Mississippi," Baum said of the photos. "Nobody said, 'Oh my golly!'" Despite the CCC photos becoming a campaign issue, or partly perhaps because of it, Barbour handily won re-election in 2003.
But George Allen's relationship with the CCC is different; it went beyond poses and portraits. In 1995, he appointed a CCC sympathizer, Virginia lawyer R. Jackson Garnett, to head the Virginia Council on Day Care and serve on the Governor's Advisory Council on Self-Determination and Federalism. According to the CCC's Citizens Informer, Garnett delivered a speech before a CCC gathering saying that the Federalism Commission was "created to study abuses by the Federal government of constitutional powers that rightfully belong to the states."
Later that year, Garnett closed the Virginia Council on Day Care after accusing it, as he wrote in a letter to Governor Allen, of attempting to "form the minds of our young children with a radical ideology before they enter public schools." The Virginia Council had aroused Garnett's ire, according to the Virginian-Pilot newspaper, for preparing an "anti-bias" curriculum for daycare teachers. Allen approved the shut-down.
Allen's Advisory Council on Self-Determination and Federalism bore an eerie resemblance to the Virginia Commission on Constitutional Government, a state agency that engaged in lobbying and propaganda in support of "massive resistance" to integration. One typical pamphlet published by the Commission declared, "We do not propose to defend racial discrimination. We do defend, with all the power at our command, the citizen's right to discriminate."
A year after the trashing of the Virginia Council on Day Care, Allen expressed his fervent belief in states' rights in a letter to the largest neo-Confederate group, the Sons of Confederate Veterans. On the occasion of the group's centennial, in 1996, Allen wrote, "Your efforts are especially worthy of recognition as across our country, Americans are charting a new direction--away from the failed approach of centralized power in Washington, and back to the founders' design of a true federal system of shared powers and dual sovereignty." Then Allen appropriated Lincoln's language in the Gettysburg Address about "a new birth of freedom": "By doing so," wrote Allen, "our country is helping to foster a rebirth of freedom for all Americans and will allow the states to chart their own course and control their own destinies as intended by the Constitution."
Allen was not alone in sending congratulations to the SCV; twelve other governors and Mississippi Senator Trent Lott--an SCV member--joined him. However, according to Ed Sebesta, a Dallas, Texas-based researcher of the neo-Confederate movement, Allen's letter was unique. "The other governors wrote mostly sentimental blather to the SCV," Sebesta said. "But Allen's letter really expressed the neo-Confederate view of the Southern tradition and showed him to be a neo-Confederate in his thinking."
The year after his letter to the SCV, Allen issued a proclamation, drafted by the local SCV, declaring April as Confederate History and Heritage Month--the month Fort Sumter was attacked and Lincoln assassinated. Once again, Allen's proclamation was laced with neo-Confederate ideology, describing the Civil War as "a four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights." He avoided any mention of slavery.
Days after Allen's proclamation, the SCV celebrated at the US Capitol. The featured speaker was Richard T. Hines, an influential Republican lobbyist and neo-Confederate financier who, a year earlier, had protested the erection of a memorial to black tennis star Arthur Ashe in downtown Richmond, Virginia as "an attempt to debunk our heritage." The NAACP condemned Allen's SCV-inspired proclamation, while Confederate Memorial Association President John Edward Hurley called the SCV's celebration at the Capitol one of "the worst capitulations to white supremacy" since the Ku Klux Klan marched down Pennsylvania Avenue in 1920.
At the same time Allen also cultivated support from the SCV's sister organization, the United Daughters of the Confederacy. He was a frequent guest at their conventions and in March, 1997, in his second letter of commendation to the group, praised its members for "promoting historical accuracy and a clear understanding of the War Between the States," employing a euphemism for the Civil War popularized by neo-Confederate groups. (An article in a 1989 issue of the UDC magazine asserted that "the worse suffering group among those engaged in the [slave] trade" was "the crews of slave ships.")
When asked whether Allen supports or deplores the SCV, his communications director Reid replied in an e-mail, "Governors routinely send greetings to individuals and organizations and that is what the constituent service office did in this case. I am certain you will note the inclusive language in the letter advocating 'a rebirth of freedom for all Americans.'" As with the CCC, Reid did not offer any condemnation of the SCV.
At the height of Allen's governorship, in Spring 1995, the CCC's Citizens Informer praised him: "Residents of the Old Dominion are rejoicing." But the CCC's invisible support became a potentially controversial matter after a 1998 Washington Post article by Thomas Edsall disclosed the CCC's links to Bob Barr. CPAC head David Keene ousted them from his conference, bluntly telling the Post of his sudden discovery: "They are racists."
Baum, for his part, maintains that Keene and CPAC's attendees were well aware of his group's racial views. "David Keene, he knew who we were," Baum told me. "I mean, you have Confederate flags on each sides of your booth--like, duh. But after the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan, he didn't want us there." (Baum said he "finagled" tickets for the 2006 CPAC convention and promoted the CCC from behind the National Rifle Association's booth.)
In 2001, Governor Allen became Senator Allen. Almost as soon as he was inaugurated, he was forced to choose between the Lost Cause and his own ambition. Trent Lott set in motion Allen's supposed reconstruction. At a 2002 birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, Lott praised Thurmond's segregationist 1948 presidential campaign. At first, Allen rushed to Lott's defense, calling him "a decent and honorable man." Lott, however, soon became radioactive. The Washington Post reported Lott's links to the CCC; his tenure as Senate Majority Leader became wobbly. Karl Rove, Bush's chief political strategist and a White House aide, pressured Republican senators to remove Lott from his leadership position. (Rove preferred the more compliant Bill Frist in the Senate's top post.) Allen saw his own opportunity in Lott's disgrace. Overnight, he went from being staunch Lott supporter to outspoken Lott critic. Calling for Lott's resignation, Allen dubbed his remarks "offensive...to those touched by the viciousness of segregation."
In the wake of Lott's fall, Allen dramatically pronounced the end of institutional racism. "This is a day that the United States Senate, with Trent Lott's resignation, has buried, graveyard-dead-and-gone, the days of discrimination and segregation," he proclaimed. With discrimination "graveyard-dead," Allen clearly hoped questions about his own past would be buried as well.
In 2000, he had hung a noose at his law office. When that fact was reported, he claimed it had "nothing to do with lynching." When it was reported that he also hung large Confederate flags in his house, he explained they were part of his flag collection. Allen had also opposed the 1991 Civil Rights Act and making Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday a holiday.
Using the Lott incident, Allen stepped forward as a champion the legacy of the civil rights movement. He boasted to Ryan Lizza of The New Republic of his "civil rights" pilgrimage to Selma, Alabama in 2002 with Democratic Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a former Freedom Rider. In 2005, together with Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, Allen co-sponsored a formal apology for slavery. He was carrying the banner of a new brand of Republicanism that compensated for its opposition to affirmative action and social spending with symbolic condemnations of what President George W. Bush deemed "the baggage of bigotry."
But the goodwill Allen may have earned with his image makeover evaporated on August 11 in Breaks, Virginia, a rural town deep in the heart of Appalachia. Before an all-white crowd, he called S.R. Sidarth "Macaca, or whatever his name is." When Allen asked the crowd to "welcome Macaca here" to "America and the real world of Virginia," his audience hooted and hollered. Below the media's radar--and away from every camera except the one in Sidarth's palm--Allen was raising a supposedly buried but still vibrant racially charge populism.
Now Allen finds himself in a quandary. While he atones for his racist gaffe in order to succeed in the 2008 Republican primaries, he cannot afford to alienate the neo-Confederate movement that helped propelled his career during the 1990s. As Allen begs forgiveness for his "mistake," his spokesman avoids criticizing groups like the SCV and CCC. "The neo-Confederates could break a Republican candidate, especially in South Carolina, where they're extremely organized," Sebesta observes.
Senator John McCain's misadventure with the neo-Confederate movement in the 2000 South Carolina primary provides a cautionary tale that must not be lost on Allen. Facing George W. Bush in South Carolina, McCain hired Richard Quinn as his state field manager. Quinn was an editor of the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan, and a frequent critic of Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, who he once dubbed a "terrorist." Before the primary, Quinn organized a rally of 6,000 people in support of flying the Confederate flag over the statehouse. Quinn dressed up McCain volunteers in Confederate Army uniforms as they passed fliers to the demonstrators assuring them that McCain supported the Confederate flag.
As soon as news spread that McCain had called for removal of the Dixie flag from the statehouse, the SCV's Richard T. Hines funded the distribution of 250,000 fliers accusing McCain of "changing his tune" and describing Bush as "the [only] major candidate who refused to call the Confederate flag a racist symbol." Bush surged ahead of McCain and took South Carolina, dooming McCain's presidential hopes.
"People didn't buy it," Baum told me about McCain's gambit. "When he thought the flag issue would help him, he was for it. When he thought it wouldn't help him, going North, he denounced it. And you still have all these gullible liberals who think McCain's a saint."
Now, Allen is trying to lay the groundwork for his own Southern Strategy in 2008. On August 9, he took time out of his re-election campaign to keynote the South Carolina GOP's state convention. If he can overcome the controversies over his past in his Senate race, Allen may yet get to play his old game once again.