Who Is George Allen, Anyway?

In a subdued speech at the end of a rough week, Virginia Sen. George Allen didn't mention anything to the evangelical Family Research Council about his discovery of his Jewish heritage. He didn't reassure his audience that, as he had told the Richmond Times-Dispatch, "I still had a ham sandwich for lunch. And my mother made great pork chops." And he didn't apologize for the umpteenth time for using a North African racial slur, "macaca" (monkey), against an American student of Indian descent who works for his Democratic opponent, James Webb. Instead, Allen talked at length about his devotion to "the values of family and honesty." The irony escaped him. After all, the main reason he's self-destructing as a national political figure is concern over whether he's honest about his family and himself.

It won't matter in the election that Allen's maternal grandparents were Jewish. Similar stories of Jewish ancestry during the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Wesley Clark were treated as curiosities, without political consequence. But political damage is cumulative and character-driven; developments that might otherwise be one-day stories end up crystallizing deeper doubts about a candidate. The "macaca" incident belied Allen's claim that he had moved past his early intolerance and reputation as a bully. And the ham-sandwich line signaled that the man who only a few months ago was considered a strong candidate for the 2008 GOP nomination for president may--how to put this gently?--lack the reflective qualities the country is looking for in the post-Bush years. When Allen angrily told a reporter during a debate last week that she was "making aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs," as if Jewish roots were something to be ashamed of, he seemed out of control. Despite more than a decade as governor and senator, Allen is facing a dangerous question: who is this guy, anyway?

Discerning Virginians have long known that Allen's tobacco-chewing good-ole-boy personality is the product of an adolescent affectation. The son of legendary Los Angeles Rams and Washington Redskins football coach George Allen, he was raised in Chicago and Los Angeles. For a Northern kid who never lived in the South, he developed a strange affinity for the Confederacy (which lasted well into his governorship), decorating his car with Confederate decals and even wearing a Stars and Bars lapel pin in his graduation picture at Palos Verde High School.

None of this ancient history would matter if Allen didn't seem to be dissembling. High-school classmates recall that before a basketball game against a black team, he and friends secretly scrawled anti-white racial slurs on their school building, in an attempt to build resentment toward the black players. When asked last spring by Ryan Lizza of The New Republic about the incident, he denied any racial dimension. The same trouble with a straight answer characterized his serial "macaca" explanations. First he said he didn't know what the word meant, then that he made it up from the word "Mohawk," and, most recently, that it's Italian for "buffoon." His insistence that he never heard the word growing up (backed last week by his mother) doesn't sound credible, given that the slur was common in the colonial Tunisian community in which she was raised.

After reports of Allen's Jewish roots surfaced in a Jewish newspaper, The Forward, in August, Allen's mother finally explained to him the family's history. She said that she hid the truth because her husband worried that his early coaching career at California's Whittier College (where in 1952 he befriended an alumnus named Richard Nixon, whose anti-Semitic rants were later caught on the Watergate tapes) might be harmed if it were known he was married to a Jew. Such family secrets were common then.

But once again, Allen has refused to be straightforward. A month after he learned the truth, he continued to conceal it by answering in last week's debate: "My mother's French-Italian with a little Spanish blood in her. And I was raised as she was, as far as I know, raised as a Christian." It wasn't as far as he knew. By then he knew further, but chose not to share it, ostensibly at the request of his mother. After he finally issued a statement confirming the story, Allen suddenly began to play the religion card, suggesting that people were blaming his mother for the "macaca" slur because "either she or her father was Jewish." From denial to victimhood in three days.

None of this may matter. Allen has more money than decorated Vietnam vet and former Navy secretary Webb, and money is critical in Senate races. But if Webb wins, it will be because, in his awkward rookie way, he's more authentic than Allen. You get the sense that he knows who he is and where he comes from, and if he didn't know, he'd find out--and hold the ham sandwich on the High Holidays.