Sunday, September 24, 2006

What George Allen Feared

Ever since Mark Schmitt first told me about him, George Allen has always seemed to me like a man with a deep understanding of exactly one thing -- the power of a good-ol-boy image in winning political office. From the football metaphors to the chewing tobacco to the cowboy boots, he's built himself exactly the kind of persona that's been winning elections in America from William Henry Harrison's "Log Cabin" campaign of 1840 to Bush's two recent election victories. Of course, all of these identities were largely fabricated. Harrison was born on a plantation, not in a log cabin. Bush was a president's son and a Senator's grandson who only bought his ranch in 1999 as a backdrop for his presidential campaign. Allen himself was born and raised in California, not in the rural South.

Allen's awareness of the importance of his persona, I think, is what explains Allen's furious response to the bizarre question that he was asked in this week's debate with Jim Webb. Confronted with his Jewish ancestry, Allen angrily attacked the questioner for "making aspersions" about his ethnic background.

I don't see this as evidence that Allen was ashamed to be descended from Tunisian Jews. What Allen saw in the question, I think, was a threat to his carefully cultivated good-ol-boy persona. Jewish stereotypes and rural Southern stereotypes are about as far apart as any pair of stereotypes in America, and it's hard to fit them together in any sort of natural-looking way. (Texas gubernatorial candidate Kinky Friedman has a Jewish cowboy shtick, complete with Lone Star flags where the star is the Star of David. That's comedy, and its effect relies on how unnatural the fusion is.) If your political career depends on out-good-ol-boying other people, you're going to be really worried when someone presents you with information that disrupts that persona or threatens to reveal how artificial it is.

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