When a reporter botches the facts in his very first sentence, is he sloppy or dishonest? I respect Ryan Lizza's work, and the meticulous research invested in his profile on Sen. George Allen. Yet from the first sentence, the perspective through which Lizza is reading Allen is clear: Allen's a Southern racist hick, and a fake at that.
As it happens, I am also writing a profile on Senator Allen. In the middle of this yesterday, I read that the New Republic has a piece on Allen coming out. ABC News's The Note carried excerpts hours before TNR published it on its website. TNR must have released it to them. So it thinks it has a pretty hot story on its hands.
The article is a hit piece. Lizza brings up the old stories about Allen hanging a Confederate flag in his Earlysville home and a noose in his law office. He dutifully reports 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" (sounds like Augusta National).
Which part did TNR release to ABC? Lizza found Allen's high school yearbook picture, complete with Confederate flag lapel pin. He called up his acquaintances -- friends and enemies -- to find a football game day prank involving "racially tinged" spray paint. No one agrees what it said. Allen placed a Confederate flag on his Mustang, wore boots, and took to Johnny Cash. (And I thought Cash was cool.)
On top of that, Lizza depicts it all as an act. Allen "resembles a froufrou version of Toby Keith." (What is that supposed to mean?) His opinions "about red-state cultural aesthetics" are "finely honed." His "s[--]t-kickin' image may be the subject of certain Republican consultant fantasies." It's a "shtick" similar to President Bush's, but "that folksy act looks a little spent."
THE ONLY ACT THAT LOOKS SPENT is the postmodern portrait writer following the Southern Republican politician and finding a closet racist. Lizza is awfully suspicious of Allen's place among Virginians at one event in particular: Shad Planking.
I attended Shad Planking. From Lizza's reporting, we must have been in the same small group of reporters (less than 15 people) surrounding Allen late in the afternoon as he interviewed with a radio station, 800 AM WSVS.
So I find it curious that Lizza's very first sentence is "Senator George Allen is the only person in Virginia who wears cowboy boots." I wore cowboy boots that day, just feet from Lizza.
As did a young man I met minutes later, after Senator Allen left. Ben Marchi, a Vienna, Virginia resident, was there with his buddy Howard Cook, the Marine sergeant I mentioned in my article. When I read Lizza's line, I called Marchi and relayed it to him. Originally from Charlottesville and a Virginia resident all but a year of his life, Marchi said he "never leave[s] home without 'em." How many other Virginians wear cowboy boots? "South of the Rappahannock [River, which runs through Fredericksburg about 50 miles south of Alexandria], more than tune in to the New York Yankees." Admittedly, not a high threshold. Elsewhere in the state though, Marchi said, "I'd invite whoever wrote that article to visit Floyd County on a Friday night at the country store down there." And at Shad Planking? "I think around an event like Shad Planking it'd be pretty hard to miss people with boots on."
In fact, cowboy boots are so common in Virginia that L. Douglas Wilder, mayor of Richmond and Allen's predecessor as governor, was seen this week wearing a pair.
Contacted yesterday, Lizza said he "didn't see any cowboy boots at Shad Planking except Allen's." Sadly, that poor reporting reflects the rest of his article. Just as he decided that there were no other cowboy boots to be found at Shad Planking, he decided that George Allen's enthusiastic embrace of the South is disingenuous and racist. So Allen is faking it, except when he's not.
Which one to believe? Neither. Lizza's picture of Allen is willfully incomplete. He couldn't find any "Confederate flags or coded racial appeals" in Allen's stump speech, which Lizza admits he spends on substantial policy items. While Allen discusses energy policy during their interview, all Lizza can think of is the Confederate flag. In my interviews with Allen, race came up once -- as the Senator's point of departure with Thomas Jefferson's political philosophy. In that area, he said, 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."
THROUGHOUT HIS ARTICLE, LIZZA blindly sneers at all things Southern and rural. Allen's penchant for snuff tobacco is depicted most unflatteringly, in the tone of "civilized people just don't do that." The Confederate flag is bandied about as a quick-and-easy sign of Allen's backwardness without any historical context. It's not a cut-and-dry racist banner. For example, Lynyrd Skynyrd is known to unfurl an enormous one during their concerts at the beginning of "Sweet Home Alabama." The General Lee displayed it on the roof in The Dukes of Hazzard. It's a symbol of the South, and not necessarily racist, a point about which intelligent people may disagree. Many have used it as a racist symbol, undoubtedly. As best as I can tell, being a Western transplant to Virginia, many others wave it in pride for the South, or in defiance of those who don't try to understand them.
Lizza reveals himself as part of that group. His general tone indicates a prejudice toward the South, but one sentence in particular clinches that: "Whuppin' his siblings might have been a natural prelude to Confederate sympathies and noose-collecting if Allen had grown up in, say, a shack in Alabama." In other words, poor Alabamians are naturally racist. Lizza implicitly asks, how did George Allen, son of a cosmopolitan woman growing up in the big city, end up a racist?
The suggestion that Allen's demeanor is an act is the most remarkable part of Lizza's article. He has evidently spent little time with Allen. Allen's embrace of country music and NASCAR is authentic. His favorite current driver is Elliot Sadler. As has been noted elsewhere, he still has a "3" for Dale Earnhardt on the back of his pickup truck. But to Allen, Richard Petty is always tops -- "King Richard was my hero," he told me. He lights up with enthusiasm when discussing road trips through areas Lizza might refer to as "flyover country."
Allen's childhood was on the road, much of it spent in the South. The Allens spent Christmastime in New Orleans or Florida for bowl games while his father scouted college players. They bounced around from Whittier College to the Chicago Bears to the Los Angeles Rams to the Washington Redskins. By all accounts, this boy from all over took to Virginia when Coach Allen landed in the area.
Sen. Allen has answered for the noose and flag for years -- Lizza's questions aren't the first. He dismisses Allen's explanation of the noose as part of a Western motif. Not so fast. The noose was on a tree in his office, along with other Western memorabilia, I'm told. The noose was just as much a Western object as a Southern one, and in the West it played a civilizing influence. One well-known biographical detail, which Lizza doesn't mention, is Allen's time as a buckaroo near Winnemucca, Nevada, during the summers of 1974-76. Larry Sabato, the University of Virginia politics professor and Allen's classmate there, told Newsweek that Allen is "really more West than South." Displaying a noose may be a politically dumb act, but Allen's explanation is as plausible as Lizza's.
AND WHATEVER LIZZA AND the New Republic find automatically offensive about the Confederate flag, Allen need not answer to liberal speech enforcers for it. This is an old story and an old culture clash. It means different things (many quite odious and wrong) to different people. Again, displaying it may be politically dumb. But that doesn't make it racist.
I asked John Reid, Allen's communications director, about the graffiti stunt yesterday. "It's not like he's walking around telling everybody that he was a saint when he was 17 years old," he said. "He admits that he was rebellious, and he wishes he'd never been involved in that school prank." No amount of apologizing, "civil rights pilgrimages" throughout the South, sponsoring anti-lynching apologies in the Senate, or helping minorities is enough atonement to Lizza.
One man who knows Allen well thinks otherwise. J. Scott Leake managed his first campaign and is now executive director of the Virginia Senate Republican Leadership Trust. He said yesterday, "In addition to the fact that I've never heard him say anything that could be construed as racist, I've always seen him embrace people of all races, regardless of their station in life. There's no one he's not comfortable shaking hands with, or putting his arm around."
The New Republic is usually -- or should be -- more sophisticated than this gotcha hit piece. But this is what happens when a reporter writes an article while wearing ideological blinders. The story line is written in advance, and square details fill the round holes.
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