August is often, as they say in the media business, a slow month. But The Washington Post is filling the void this year by ginning up some news.
While campaigning recently in southern Virginia, Sen. George Allen singled out a man in the crowd, announcing, “This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is. He’s with my opponent.”
The man’s S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer for Allen’s Democratic opponent James Webb. “Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia,” Allen concluded. The comments seemed mean spirited, although even the Post wasn’t exactly sure when they meant.
“Depending on how it is spelled, the word macaca could mean either a monkey that inhabits the Eastern Hemisphere or a town in South Africa,” the paper explained on Aug. 15.
Allen said he didn’t know what the word meant. “I would never want to demean him as an individual. I do apologize if he’s offended by that. That was no way the point,” he told the paper. And that’s where the flap ought to have ended, with the one front-page story titled “Allen Quip Provokes Outrage, Apology.”
The next day the story was again on the front page, under a headline that explained the senator was now on “damage control after remarks.” Allen again apologized, saying he’d simply “made up a nickname for the cameraman, which was in no way intended to be racially derogatory.”
Since we’d now had as many senatorial apologies as we’d had front-page stories, it seemed the Post should move on. And indeed, the macaca mess did subside for a few days, before returning with a vengeance on Aug. 19. “Allen Flap May Give A Boost To Webb,” announced the front page.
That’s an interesting turn. “May” boost Webb? Why the speculation?
After all, the Post is a big believer in polls. This is the paper that, when President Bush’s approval ratings were falling some months ago, carried almost daily updates. It was constantly quoting the latest CNN/USA Today/Gallup/CBS News/New York Times/Washington Post/Field/Newsweek poll (so much for media competition) showing the president at a “new low.”
But now, almost a week after Sen. Allen’s controversial comments, the paper had yet to run any poll information on whether the race was really getting tighter. Instead, it turned to front-page speculation about whether those comments would hurt Allen with voters. And predictable speculation at that.
The Post quoted Martin Tillett, a “self-described Democrat” who “had already opposed Allen for his conservative positions.” Tillett added, “This week has just added fuel on the fire as far as I am concerned.” Oh, there’s news.
Added Phil Singer, communications director for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, “We’ve always said that when Virginians got to see the real George Allen, they were not going to like what they see.” Maybe. Of course, Virginians elected Allen governor in 1994 and senator in 2000, but maybe they simply haven’t had a chance over the last 12 years to get to know him.
The series of macaca stories plays right into a convenient media storyline: Reporters have decided Sen. Allen is a racist, and they’re going to keep hammering away. The New Republic magazine outlined the strategy. “George Allen is the only person in Virginia who wears cowboy boots,” the May 8 story opened, sneeringly.
The piece dredged up the fact Allen once had a confederate flag in his home and noted that in 1984 he’d voted against a state holiday commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. “As a chief executive, he also compiled a controversial record on race,” the magazine asserted.
Now, it’s all right for The New Republic to think Sen. Allen’s a racist. But simply looking at his words paints a misleading picture. The question, in 2006, shouldn’t be, “Has a man ever said anything racist or thought anything racist?” We can’t police thought or speech, and we shouldn’t try.
The question should be, “Have his actions as an elected official harmed minority rights?” Let’s remember that, within living memory, members of the United States Senate tried to use laws to discriminate against blacks. In fact, Robert Byrd, the senior Democrat in the Senate, filibustered the 1964 civil rights bill. That’s an action that far exceeds the importance of any words Sen. Allen has spoken.
And, as even The New Republic admits, Allen helped pass an anti-lynching resolution last year. If he’s a racist, that’s a funny way of showing it.
Voters seem to have moved beyond the macaca flap. “There were no questions from the public about [Allen’s] remarks yesterday; voters preferred to talk about energy independence, health care and Iraq,” The Post reported in a page B8 story on Aug. 23. In other words, they’re concerned about issues that affect their daily lives.
Our country has made amazing strides on race relations in just a few decades. We’re far removed from the era of Jim Crow laws and lynchings. Maybe some day the media will be able to acknowledge that fact.