Thursday, April 27, 2006
Portrait of The Racist As A Young Man
Ezra points to this fascinating profile of George Allen in the New Republic by Ryan Lizza. You really have to read it to believe it.
I know little about Allen except that he sounds even dumber than George W. Bush every time I see him speak on television. Yesterday he was blathering on about something and I was struck by how his rosy cheeks and strange purplish hair made him look a little like Reagan. So he has Reagan's looks and Bush's brains. Oh Jesus.
What I didn't know was that he was a racist, sadistic prick. I now understand why he is such a Republican favorite. I had heard that he kept a confederate flag around and that he had a cute little "noose" hanging from a ficus tree. I didn't know that he had been a neoconfederate since he went to Palos Verdes High, right here in LA. (He didn't live in the south until he was a sophomore in college.)
George saw himself as disconnected from the culture in which he lived. He hated California and, while there, became obsessed with the supposed authenticity of rural life--or at least what he imagined it to be from episodes of "Hee Haw," his favorite TV show, or family vacations in Mexico, where he rode horses. Perhaps because of his peripatetic childhood, the South's deeply rooted culture attracted him. Or perhaps it was a romance with the masculinity and violence of that culture; his father, who was not one to spare the rod, once broke his son Gregory's nose in a fight. Whatever it was, Allen got his first pair of those now-iconic cowboy boots from one of his father's players on the Rams who received them as a promotional freebie. He also learned to dip from his dad's players. At school, he started to wear an Australian bush hat, complete with a dangling chin strap and the left brim snapped up. He wore the hat for a yearbook photo of the falconry club. His favorite record was Johnny Cash's At Folsom Prison. Writing of her brother's love for the "big, slow-witted Junior" on "Hee Haw," Jennifer reports, "[t]here was also something mildly country-thuggish about Junior that I think George felt akin to."
In high school, Allen's "Hee Haw" persona made him a polarizing figure. "He rode a little red Mustang around with a Confederate flag plate on the front," says Patrick Campbell, an old classmate, who now works for the Public Works Department in Manhattan Beach, California. "I mean, it was absurd-looking in our neighborhood." Hurt Germany, who now lives in Paso Robles, California, explodes with anger at the mention of Allen's name. "The guy is horrible," she complains. "He drove around with a Confederate flag on his Mustang. I can't believe he's going to run for president." Another classmate, who asks that I not use her name, also remembers Allen's obsession with Dixie: "My impression is that he was a rebel. He plastered the school with Confederate flags."
Politically, Allen's years in Palos Verdes were dominated by the lingering racial tensions from the riots in nearby Watts in 1965--when that neighborhood was practically burned to the ground--and the nationwide riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968, which left other parts of Southern California in flames. It is with that context in mind that four former classmates and one former administrator at Allen's high school described to me an event for which Allen is most remembered--and the first glimpse that the château-raised Californian might grow up to become a defender of the South's heritage.
It was the night before a major basketball game with Morningside High. The mostly black inner-city school adjacent to Watts was coming to the almost entirely white Palos Verdes High to play. When students arrived at school on game day, they found graffiti spray-painted on the school library and other places. All five people who described the incident say the graffiti was racially tinged and meant to look like the handiwork of the black Morningside students. But it was actually put there by Allen and some of his friends. "It was something like die whitey," says Campbell. The school administrator, who says he is a Republican and would "seriously consider" voting for Allen for president, says the graffiti said, "burn, baby, burn," a reference to the race riots.
Karl Rove and Lee Atwater would no doubt high five such smart thinking. What a fine preparation for southern GOP politics. But then, Allen always played hardball:
...when his father was on the road, young George often acted as a surrogate dad to his siblings. According to his sister Jennifer, he was particularly strict about bedtimes. One night, his brother Bruce stayed up past his bedtime. George threw him through a sliding glass door. For the same offense, on a different occasion, George tackled his brother Gregory and broke his collarbone. When Jennifer broke her bedtime curfew, George dragged her upstairs by her hair.
George tormented Jennifer enough that, when she grew up, she wrote a memoir of what it was like living in the Allen family. In one sense, the book, Fifth Quarter, from which these details are culled, is unprecedented. No modern presidential candidate has ever had such a harsh and personal account of his life delivered to the public by a close family member. The book paints Allen as a cartoonishly sadistic older brother who holds Jennifer by her feet over Niagara Falls on a family trip (instilling in her a lifelong fear of heights) and slams a pool cue into her new boyfriend's head. "George hoped someday to become a dentist," she writes. "George said he saw dentistry as a perfect profession--getting paid to make people suffer."
According to Lizza, Allen explains "It's the perspective of the youngest child, who is a girl."
I am tempted to make a big deal out of Allen's phoniness, as Lizza does. After all, from the non-Virginian cowboy boots to the tobacco spitting, he has self-consciously adopted these neo-confederate affectations. He's not a real son of the south. But as a good friend explained to me some time ago, it would do no good to attack him on that basis. Despite Joe Klein's fantasy about "authenticity" being the lodestar of winning politics, George W. Bush has proven that being a phony southerner is better than not being a southerner at all. Indeed, a phony southerner can be better than a real one as long as they put their whole heart and soul into it as George W. Bush and George Allen do. It shows respect.
In Mudcat Saunders' new book about how the Democrats can win the south, he and his co-author go to great lengths to explain that politicians must have southern cultural tastes in order to win the presidency. Presumably a guy like Allen (who during his teen-age years in Southern California had a confederate flag on his mustang and wore a rebel flag pin in his graduation picture) is a man who has lived his bona fides even better than the the Yale fratboy, Junior Bush. Nobody can assail his good ole boy pretentions. Allen truly loves southern culture even if he has no blood ties to the south and his mother is (gasp!) French.
If winning the presidency in the country really rests on relative good ole boy-ness, then it's hard to see how anyone can beat Allen. Aside from his total immersion in southern culture, the article is full of examples of his youthful (and not so youthful) racism and I can only assume that this will help him when he goes up against John McCain in the south. The racist voters of the GOP will catch all his winks and nods with no problem.
The only question is whether the big money boys will get behind him. He is, after all, even dumber than George W. Bush and they may be having some second thoughts about running another empty suit:
...although Allen is undoubtedly the hot new thing within the Beltway's conservative establishment, some denizens of K Street and right-wing newsrooms have begun doubting whether he represents their best hope to snuff out the burgeoning campaign of their enemy, McCain. "If my choice is, 'Who do I want to go out with to a fun dinner to drink our brains out,'" says one of the party's top fund-raisers who has met with Allen many times, "there's no question, it'd be Allen. He's a guy's guy, but he didn't blow me away in terms of substance."
It's hard to believe that they can't find a southern Republican who isn't a sadistic idiot to run for president, but I'm beginning to think that's the real problem. Guys like Bush and Allen are the best they can do. Clearly, all the smart southerners are Democrats.
digby 4/27/2006 10:33:00 AM