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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.
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