Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The Allen conundrum

You have to hand it to George Allen. He has put a successful career as a US representative, two-term governor and US Senator all in jeopardy because he felt the need to publicly disparage his opponent's campaign troll with a racial slur (or not, depending upon whom you believe).

I've seen Allen speak twice. Both times he impressed me as one of the more intelligent and philosophical men in public service, a man who seems to understand and revere America's founding principles and who seeks their application to our world today (or at least in his stump speeches). So what then explains Allen's recent public missteps? In a word, I think it is integrity—or the lack thereof.

Allen claims that he has never used the word "nigger." I have a hard time believing that, because quite frankly, I hear a lot of people use the word. Its uses range from a term of endearment among some, to one of "street" credibility, to a comedic vent, to a way to express frustration and anger with the perceived negative elements in the black community, and, of course, as a vicious and unjust racial pejorative. For a word that is detested by many, "nigger" gets plenty of mileage—and from members of all races.

So can Allen honestly claim that he never used "nigger" as a racial pejorative, or that his use of the word "macaca" was innocent? Perhaps he can. But rather than issue furious denial after furious denial, Allen would have been far better served to admit that yes, like a lot of people, he has used inappropriate words in the past, and if he used them as racial pejoratives, be it as a schoolboy, a college student, or later in life, he regrets their use. He can explain the Confederate flag and noose that once decorated his office, and what they mean to him, both then, and now. He can explain why it is wrong for a leader to present himself in any way that communicates irrational animus toward anyone, and what it took for him to learn that lesson in his own life. He can also say that he has spent a lifetime training himself to be a just leader—of all Virginians-and that his record of legislative achievements proves it.

People will forgive a person for being wrong, but they will not forgive a person who was wrong and then dishonest about it. A political campaign is perhaps the worst way for a person to be confronted with their demons, but an honorable true man does not blanch when faced with the truth about his mistakes. I don't think Allen is being forthright on the issue of racial bigotry, and it is too sensitive and important a topic to for him not to be. His call to return the campaign to "substantive issues" over issues of character is bizarre, because quite frankly, character matters. Allen may very well may lose his re-election on this point alone, and if he does deserve to win, he will need to offer more on than what he has thus far in his campaign.

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