This article appeared in the June 2006 issue of The American Spectator, as its cover story. To subscribe, click here.
ASK GEORGE ALLEN IF HE’S RUNNING for president, and Virginia’s junior senator demurs like any politician facing re-election this year.
“When we get to the future, I’ll determine the future,” he told reporters recently.
But make no mistake — George F. Allen is running for president. Or he just happens especially to enjoy primary states. In March and April, he visited Iowa, New Hampshire, Texas, South Carolina, and North Carolina. He’s courting bigwigs at state party conventions, and throwing his name in the hat for presidential straw polls.
Facing two serious Democratic challengers while his re-election poll numbers hover around 50 percent, Senator Allen is wise to shy away from the presidential speculation. As he likes to quote his late father, Coach George H. Allen, “The future is now.” Yet barring a major fiasco, Virginia voters will re-elect their favorite adopted son.
But how will national voters take to Allen’s easy manner, cowboy boots, and reverence for Thomas Jefferson? Will Allen seem too Virginian, or just American enough for the White House?
A familiarity with George Allen explains his presidential contender status: notable biography, solid political record, and affable demeanor. His sway over Virginians was recently on display at an old school political ritual in the Tidewater area of Virginia: Shad Planking.
Marking the unofficial beginning of the Virginia campaign season each April, Shad Planking is best described as a political picnic. With a country-rock band in the background, attendees feast on shad, baked beans, coleslaw, and corn bread. Politicians present their best signs, handshakes, and beer. The band takes a break, and the politicians give speeches. It’s an unusual mix of fish, beer, and politics.
Yet George Allen barely makes it to the stage. He has attended Shad Planking for 25 years, since his days as a delegate to the General Assembly, and it shows. In his boots and a “Virginia” belt buckle, it takes him well over an hour to navigate the crowd.
And Allen has all the time in the world. He greets old friends from his career in politics. He reacts warmly when an older gentleman introduces himself as J.E.B. Stuart IV. “James Ewell Brown,” Allen beams. Stuart tells him, “Fifth and sixth are on the way.” Allen adjusts a man’s campaign sticker to where it’s visible and sends him off, “Thank you, my friend.” He spots a fellow wearing a bolo tie and tells him, “If you’re gonna wear a tie, that’s the tie to wear.”
The affection for Allen seems more personal than an attraction to celebrity. One woman greets Allen like an old friend. Rhonda Winfield met him a week earlier at a campaign stop, when she gave him her late son’s dog tags. L/Cpl. Jason Redifer died last year in Iraq when an IED detonated near his Humvee.
She hadn’t planned to hand the tags to Allen, but as she stood in line to meet him, “It dawned on me that he’s the epitome of the ideals and beliefs that my son gave his life for.”
EARLIER THAT MONTH, in George Allen’s Senate office, as he tells of growing up as the son of a Hall of Fame football coach, one imagines bull sessions stretching into the night. Allen’s an unstoppable storyteller once he gets started. And he’s on a tear: attending training camp with the Chicago Bears and breaking his jaw falling out of the bunk. Spending Christmastime in the South for bowl games as his father scouted college players. Learning the consequences of trying to fool Coach Allen by filling a bag with a basketball instead of weeds — weeding with a flashlight to finish the job.
He comes off as a Regular Guy. He eschews D.C. (would like to cede most of it back to Maryland), cell phones (“too much of a distraction”), and wingtips.
Now, he is fond of yard work (thanks, Dad): pulling weeds or mowing the lawn while listening to NASCAR or a football game. When his face lights up with excitement to talk about road trips, NASCAR, or football, it’s clear that these are his favorite subjects.
While some candidates play to the NASCAR crowd, George Allen is the NASCAR crowd. A person’s favorite NASCAR driver indicates his personality, he believes — his is Emporia, Virginia’s own Elliot Sadler. Not surprisingly, the sport has political significance to Allen as well. The fans, he says, “are the essence, the spirit of America. They’re from all walks of life, they’re patriotic. They care about their communities… There’s no airs about them. They don’t like limits, they don’t like restrictions, heck they don’t even like racing with restrictor plates.”
As with most professional politicians, Allen’s political and personal interests flow together. The tastes seem genuine, but the spiels about them are polished. Still, Allen is at home with this crowd: never in public without his cowboy boots on and a can of snuff nearby.
IN VIRGINIA, the itinerant coach’s son found a home. When asked about his youth, Allen doesn’t fondly recall the beaches of Southern California, where he was born in 1952 and later attended high school. Rather, he remembers riding in the family’s 1951 Ford Victoria along Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago, where his father worked under Bears’ Coach George Halas. Or he’ll recount family road trips spent hitting the best fireworks stands, barbeque joints, battlefields, Indian mounds, and other historic sites.
It wasn’t the life of a military family, but it was close. “If people didn’t know what my father did, they’d say, ‘Where have you lived?'” Allen said. “I’d say, ‘We’ve lived here and lived there and spent time there,’ and they’d say, ‘Well, is your father in the military?'”
In the midst of the Allens’ moves to Chicago in the late ’50s and back to Los Angeles in 1966, young George Allen “went country.” He took to television shows like Gunsmoke and Hee Haw. He picked up chewing tobacco snuff and his first pair of cowboy boots from his fathers’ players. Johnny Cash, wildly popular again by the 1968 release of Live From Folsom Prison, captured his attention.
Allen also embraced a symbol of the South in his high school years in Palos Verdes, California, Ryan Lizza recently reported in the New Republic: the battle flag of the Confederacy. Allen adorned his Ford Mustang with it, as well as his shirt collar in his yearbook photo.
Lizza also reported the details of a graffiti stunt that was revealed during Allen’s 2000 Senate campaign. Allen and his friends spray painted his high school with anti-white graffiti the night before Palos Verdes was to face a predominantly black basketball team. Allen denies that the graffiti was “racially tinged.” Patrick Campbell, a classmate of Allen’s, confirmed the details of the incident to TAS.
These days, Allen isn’t proud of the vandalism. “He admits that he was rebellious, and he wishes he’d never been involved in that school prank,” John Reid, Senator Allen’s communications director, said.
So what do George Allen’s high school days mean? Some of his classmates believe he is racist. Lizza also resurrected the stories about Allen hanging a Confederate battle flag in his home and a noose in his law office. He reported that Allen, like many Virginians, opposed placing Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Lee-Jackson Day. He joined a “Richmond social club with a well-known history of discrimination” — which could describe many Southern organizations, whether or not they discriminate today. In light of Allen’s suburban childhood, Lizza finds it “truly improbable that someone with his upbringing ever acquired such backwoods tastes.” Improbable, he implies, unless Allen is genuinely racist.
It’s an old argument, particularly from those incapable of seeing the Confederate flag as a cultural symbol with many other connotations. Many good men regret parts of their childhoods. It’s just possible that Allen was an ornery, rebellious coach’s son who didn’t like Southern California, and seized on the Southern culture he so enjoyed on family travels. When National Review‘s Rich Lowry asked him about becoming a Southern boy in California, Allen answered, “I don’t know. I’m just the way I am. I don’t worry about it.”
Whatever his personal beliefs, Allen clearly regards racism as a political problem. He has participated in three “civil rights pilgrimages” in recent years. Last year, he led Republican efforts to pass a Senate resolution apologizing for not outlawing lynching.
For his part, Allen no longer seems enchanted with the Confederate flag. On the most recent pilgrimage in late April, he said, “I have learned over time what that flag means… To me, it didn’t mean what it means to some people… I looked at it more as anti-establishment, renegade, rebelliousness. But I have learned… when you look at how that flag has been appropriated by hate groups. I don’t ever want to hurt people or in any way make them feel bad about one thing or another.”
ALLEN’S YEARS AT THE UNIVERSITY OF VIRGINIA were largely unremarkable. After a one-year stop at UCLA, he transferred to Mr. Jefferson’s school when the Washington Redskins hired his father in 1971. He enjoyed Charlottesville well enough to stay for law school. By all accounts, the Southern wannabe who had turned off his high school classmates was finally home: he drove a pickup truck, and picked up deer hunting. As in high school, his football playing was nothing special, but the second-string quarterback made the all-conference academic team. And he earned a little cowboy credibility buckarooing during the summers of 1974-76 near Winnemucca, Nevada.
While at UVA, George Allen had his first taste of politics. David Keene, now chairman of the American Conservative Union and southern regional coordinator for Ronald Reagan’s 1976 campaign, recruited Allen to lead Young Virginians for Reagan. Keene sought him for his name, recognized around the state for his popular father, not his political acumen. His task? He told the Washingtonian, “They said, ‘You’ll be fine, just tell people why you like Ronald Reagan.'” That skill must have come as naturally as it does today — Reagan won Virginia.
After receiving his law degree in 1977, Allen landed a clerkship with a federal judge in Abingdon, Virginia, where he lived frugally in the country near the railroad. He saved enough money to return to Charlottesville in 1978 and buy the building that would house his law office, which he restored himself.
Given his self-identification with Thomas Jefferson, it is fitting that George Allen began his political career in the shadow of Monticello in 1979. He finished third out of four in that first race for the House of Delegates, he always says, because he wasn’t himself. He listened to his campaign manager, who told him to wear wingtips instead of his boots. He wore boots when he ran again for the House of Delegates in 1982, and won. It probably didn’t hurt that he moved to the next district over: from the more liberal city of Charlottesville to the rural Albemarle County seat — Jefferson’s seat.
Allen’s most significant project in those House of Delegates years was wooing his second wife Susan. He had first married Anne Patrice Rubel in 1980, but their marriage ended after four years. “She wanted a different life than the one we were leading, at the log house in the woods and all the stress of politics,” Allen once explained. So when Allen began dating Susan Brown, he put her through the political ringer. The scene of local politics, barbeques and dances, was the venue of their two-year courtship. They married in 1986.
He tells crowds in his stump speech that she’s his “best adviser.” As she stood by him for Q&A with the press after a recent campaign stop, it was clear that the Senator wasn’t just flattering her. Poised and attentive, she held her own as reporters fired questions. She appeared to take her own mental notes for discussion later. After years of giving speeches as the politician’s wife, she has gathered her own following. A button at Shad Planking puts that well: “I support Susan Allen’s husband.”
ALLEN’S ASCENT ACCELERATED in 1991. He won a special election that November to the U.S. House of Representatives. Weeks after Allen’s victory, Virginia Democrats sealed their own fate and districted him out of his seat. That left Allen an easy choice: challenge a six-term fellow Republican congressman or the Democratic grip on the governor’s mansion.
Once Sen. John Warner said he wasn’t interested in running for governor, Allen was the man to beat. He easily secured the nomination and turned a 29-percentage-point deficit into a 17-point victory to take the governor’s mansion in November 1993.
The Senator dwells upon his record as governor in his stump speeches for good reason: in the short four years Virginia gives its governors, he shined. He asked 400 public employees for their resignations a month before he took office. Even liberal columnists admired his record fighting state bureaucracy. Fulfilling campaign promises, he abolished parole for violent criminals and reformed welfare.
And he succeeded with this legislative agenda while Republicans were still a minority in the General Assembly. “He was the most successful governor in the last quarter century,” said J. Scott Leake, the executive director of the Virginia Senate Republican Leadership Trust. The manager of Allen’s first campaign (“I was the guy who told him to wear wingtips”), Leake bears the brunt of his frequent chagrin. And despite his affiliation with a more moderate group, Leake has no hard feelings: “He came to Richmond and did what no one else can do: unite the Democrats. He also united the Republicans. He’s the most unifying political figure in the Virginia Republican Party in a generation.” He also managed to unite the electorate, leaving office with approval ratings as high as 70 percent.
WHILE THE PRESS AND DEMOCRATS make hay of Allen’s flirtation with the presidency as he runs for re-election, there is more to it than partisanship. On one level, Allen readily admits that being Senator isn’t his favorite job. This March, he told Iowans that the Senate is “too slow.” Later that month, he told reporters in Richmond that the Senate “moves at the pace of a wounded sea slug.”
Perhaps he also understands that presidential ambitions often die in the Senate for a good reason: a senator is one among a crowd. When that crowd controls both chambers and the presidency, a first-term senator may support bills that he would otherwise veto as a lone chief executive.
Still, what does Allen have to show for himself in the Senate? He defeated two-term incumbent Chuck Robb in 2000. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee for the 2004 election cycle, he helped raise over $68 million, oversaw a sweep of open Democratic seats, and earned considerable national exposure. He has consistently followed President Bush’s agenda in the Senate, to the tune of 96 percent of the time in 2005. But the fact that Allen names his Internet tax moratorium as his most important accomplishment in the Senate makes his record rather bland for a presidential hopeful.
So what does the man believe? Since arriving in the Senate, Allen has cited Ronald Reagan as a political model. And in a February address he sought to inherit the Gipper’s legacy. Since his days at UVA, though, one figure has dominated his words and interests: Thomas Jefferson. His brother said years ago that as a college student Allen “would bore the family with lengthy recitations of Thomas Jefferson trivia.” Scott Leake said that Allen was proud of locating his law office at the corner of 2nd Street and Jefferson in Charlottesville. Allen beams to note that his House of Delegates seat was “Mr. Jefferson’s.”
Allen’s identification with Jefferson runs deeper than trivia. In his stump speeches and interviews he describes his political philosophy as “common sense Jeffersonian conservatism.” What does that mean? “I don’t like restrictions or limits on people,” he said. “Unless you’re harming someone else, leave people alone. I don’t like nanny, meddling, restrictive, burdensome government.” Jeffersonian rhetoric on government’s size and role is a welcome antidote to both parties’ apparent surrender to big government.
But a conservative romance with Jefferson is tricky. Modern conservatives would probably oppose much of Jefferson’s thought, like his agrarian economy. As a man of the Enlightenment, Jefferson was a radical individualist. Arguably, this individualism fueled his federalism more than did a belief in properly assigning responsibilities to each level of government. Therefore, Jefferson strongly tended toward a sometimes frightening mob rule, apparently endorsing Shays’s Rebellion. He told Ezra Stiles, president of Yale, “If the happiness of the mass of the people can be secured at the expense of a little tempest now and then, or even of a little blood, it will be a precious purchase.”
Based on this theory of decentralized government, Jefferson suggested that states could nullify federal laws. He opposed a standing army. He distrusted any government involvement in matters of morals or faith. Thus it comes as little surprise that the “wall of separation between Church & State” comes not from the Constitution, but from Jefferson’s letter to the Danbury Baptists. If not an atheist, Jefferson was certainly a deist — believing foremost in man’s unbridled capability to perfect the world through reason.
Allen’s embrace of Jefferson is nearly unlimited. Pressed on where he differs with Jefferson, Allen only cited slavery. In that area, he prefers the thinking of George Mason, who wrote that slavery is “that slow poison, which is daily contaminating the minds and morals of our people.”
In Allen’s Jeffersonian beliefs and record, “each strain of the party and conservatism can find something they like,” Scott Leake said. Allen lured businesses to Virginia with millions in tax incentives. He has voted for Bush’s tax cuts. He supports a marriage amendment in Virginia and assails activist judges.
Yet Allen’s identification with Jefferson may hit a little too close to home. Like Jefferson, Allen is full of contradictions. His social conservatism sometimes suffers when it conflicts with his libertarian sensibilities. Since his days as a gubernatorial candidate, he has refused to say whether he is pro-life or pro-choice, or whether Roe v. Wade should be overturned. When he uses loaded language like “there should be reasonable moderation of the excesses of abortion,” no matter what he intends, most pro-lifers will hear “safe, rare, and legal.”
On stem cell research, Allen seems more poll-calibrated than principled. He opposes federal funding for embryonic stem cell research, but said in an interview he “would not prohibit” private or state research on excess embryos created for in vitro fertilization. The federal government ought to pursue adult stem cell research, which is “actually helping dozens and dozens of maladies,” he said.
So far, his murkiness on life issues has made little practical difference. His voting record is far to the right of Democrats, and is rated 100 percent by National Right to Life. Victoria Cobb, executive director of the Family Foundation of Virginia, which worked with Allen on these issues while he was governor, said that he “has certainly supported most of the issues that pro-family activists and advocates care about.” Allen notes that he has a “pro-life voting record” and “when in doubt” opts for life. In that regard, Allen is with the vast majority of the country, which supports partial birth abortion bans and parental notification or consent statutes. But the majority of Republican primary voters may want more of a pro-life commitment from Allen.
When it comes to federalism and fiscal policy, Allen has a mixed record. He voted against campaign finance “reform” and the bloated farm bill. He was one of 25 to 30 Republican senators opposing not-so-emergency spending additions to an emergency supplemental bill for the war on terror and hurricane relief (though he end up voting for the overall bill on May 4). He opposed the “Bridge to Nowhere” last year and argues that one of the most important issues facing the country is fiscal accountability: “preventing tax increases” and controlling “unnecessary spending.” To that end, he has dusted off a bill he sponsored as a congressman: a “Taxpayers Bill of Rights” composed of structural tweaks: a balanced budget amendment, line-item veto, a super-majority for large spending hikes, and a “paycheck penalty” against Congress when it can’t pass appropriations bills on time.
As helpful as these “circuit breakers” on spending may be, where has Allen fought government growth? When asked that question, he could only cite the Internet tax moratorium and an idea to eliminate the surgeon general’s office. In two interviews, he called the current budget “very tight and taut.”
His Democratic opponents suppose Allen’s loyal voting with the President will hurt him among liberals, but it may hurt him with conservatives even more. A vote for the prescription drug benefit, the largest expansion of federal entitlements since the Great Society, seems incongruous with Jeffersonian conservatism. Conceding that he hadn’t considered Jefferson’s views on it, Allen said Jefferson would have liked its provision for health savings accounts. As for the federal government subsidizing individual drug plans, “Since the federal government’s involved in medical care, why not modernize it and allow the advances of the last 30 or 40 years to be a part?” In that same vein, he voted for No Child Left Behind — a far cry from the Reaganite view that the Department of Education should be abolished. Like proponents of big government conservatism, Allen seems to accept that the federal government will provide health care and education — the question now is how market-based and efficient the solution will be.
Allen’s record may disappoint those looking for a more conservative successor to President Bush. As a Senate candidate, he supported an increase in the federal minimum wage. TAS‘s Washington Prowler also reported at the time that Allen did not impress a Club for Growth meeting looking for a “Reaganesque economic speech.” One member said, “Allen was terrible. He was running away from every conservative issue you could think of.”
Despite Allen’s belief in Jeffersonian principles, he selectively applies them. Given their shared geographic and political history, he appears to like the idea of Jefferson. As Joseph Ellis argues in American Sphinx, American presidents from FDR to Bill Clinton have a tradition of “appropriating” Jefferson as their political icon. George Allen could be the next one.
IN THE END, voters in 2008 may not look so closely at George Allen’s substance. If he succeeds, he’ll owe it to his style. But a February speech before a large conservative crowd suggests a presidential campaign will be a challenge for Allen. As the keynote speaker at the Presidential Banquet of the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, where he won the presidential straw poll with 22 percent, Allen let down many attendees. Apparently uncomfortable with such a large crowd, he had difficulty finding his rhythm. And though armed with an opinion and a football metaphor for nearly every conceivable topic, he lacked an overall cause for Americans to rally around. The American Spectator‘s John Tabin commented afterward, “If Allen really is going to be the Republican nominee, he had better prepare for crowds that will cut him a lot less slack.”
Allen easily charms small groups in Virginia, while the presidential trail is made up of many events on the scale of CPAC. However, a recent Wednesday on Capitol Hill indicates there may be hope for Allen.
The Senator is in a hurry. There are votes in the Senate all day — still, he manages his office’s brisk business with a weary smile. Besides an evening trip to Richmond and our interview, he has to tape a Hardball segment. Substitute host David Gregory begins by asking Allen about Karl Rove’s grand jury testimony, and Allen’s face tells it all: quit wasting my time.
But when Gregory brings up Tony Snow becoming press secretary, Allen sees an opening to turn to his new pet issue: immigration. Snow offers valuable talk radio experience, Allen says, with a “pulse on what people in the real world think on issues such as immigration, on taxes, on spending.” Gregory asks what the White House should do to turn around the second term, and Allen sticks to immigration. “Number one, we need to secure our borders….This has been neglected for far too long. And there’s a consensus that we have a leaking border.”
While Allen didn’t engage the issue until this spring, he has shown remarkable political acumen in catching up and joining his fortunes with the popular position. Like many members of Congress, he caught an earful from constituents at town hall meetings and through over a thousand calls to his office — running about ten to one for tough border enforcement. So he indulged his populism. Even as he criticizes the President, he doesn’t demagogue the issue, or try to lead, but rather cites “a consensus.”
These instincts will serve him well in the next two years, if only Americans can learn who he is. As we leave the Hardball taping in the Russell Senate Office Building rotunda, a man in his late 30s, in full tourist mode, approaches to introduce himself. “Senator… Rick Santorum!” Allen corrects him, “Allen. George Allen.” But within seconds they are both friendly, and the man asks for a photo with the Senator. If this is what it takes for Allen to win the presidency, one person at a time, he’ll have his work cut out for him.