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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.”
A man of faith in a godless age is hitting Americans where it hurts.
Mr. and Mrs. American Spectator Reader, let P.J. O’Rourke talk sense to your kids.
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The debacle of this president’s administration is both a cause and a symptom of the decline of American values. Unless Congress impeaches him, that decline will go on unchecked. An eminent jurist surveys the damage and assesses the chances for the recovery of our culture.
It won’t take long for conservatives to scratch this presidential wannabe off their 2008 scorecard.
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H/T to National Review Online