The Washington Post ignited a firestorm Tuesday with a front page report that Virginia Senator George Allen, a highly touted 2008 presidential hopeful, twice called a cameraman for Democrat James Webb, who was of Indian descent, "Macaca" while ribbing him. Apparently, "macaca" is a type of monkey and is used as a slur for dark skinned people in various other countries. Before the print edition hit the streets, the online version was generating heated debate among bloggers on the left and right as to whether Allen was a racist or the Post was making much ado about nothing.
It didn't help that Allen's explanation, that by "macaca" he meant "mohawk," struck few people as plausible. It's a rather strange substitue to come up with, let alone twice.* That Allen is fluent in French and that his mother hails from Namibia made it seem unlikely, too, that he had never heard the word. Whether this was a Freudian slip, akin to Dick Armey's long-ago reference to Barney Frank as "Barney fag," or an attempt by a too-clever politician to insult someone hoping no one would catch on, we'll likely never know.
Unfortunately for Allen, though, the incident comes on the heels of an April piece in The New Republic that insinuated he was a racist, a bully, or both. Slate's chief political correspondent, John Dickerson observes that, "Allen's misstep makes him seem boorish, a problem given his past affection for the Confederate flag, but an even bigger political problem may be that the episode makes him look like an unserious lightweight." This, despite the fact that "Allen is a former governor and serves on the Senate foreign relations committee, which has a reputation for serious thought. He graduated with distinction from the University of Virginia, from which he also holds a law degree. He's no dummy."
Quite often, perception does not match reality. Dickerson notes that these impressions form quickly in the "YouTube era," but it's hardly a new phenomenon.
Gerald Ford was thought of as a clumsy, bumbling oaf because of a couple stumbles caught on film and satirized by Chevy Chase on a then-cutting edge new show called "Saturday Night Live." No matter that Ford was a star football player at Michigan and a terrific golfer well into his senior years.
Jimmy Carter was considered an enemy of the military even though he was a Naval Academy graduate, served honorably for eight years as a protégé of Admiral Rickover, and as president helped set in motion the technological revolution in military affairs for which Ronald Reagan ultimately received credit. Carter was also made fun of on nuclear policy because he, like a certain successor, had an unusual way of pronouncing the word "nuclear" and famously said he took advice from his young daughter, Amy, on proliferation issues. That Carter was a nuclear engineer was lost in the fog; he was, after all, merely a "peanut farmer."
George H.W. Bush was perceived by many as an effete wimp, despite having been a highly decorated naval aviator in WWII, a star pitcher and captain of a national championship Yale baseball team, a successful wildcatter, distinguished director of the nation's top spy agency, and commander in chief during a highly successful war. There was no "gotcha" moment for Bush but a combination of a Connecticut blue blood background, a less-than-imposing speaking voice, and some brilliant parodies of his malapropisms by Dana Carvey did him in.
Howard Dean was an obscure governor of an obscure state who seemed well on his way to securing his party's presidential nomination. All most knew about him was that he was a medical doctor, so he was presumed to be smart and competent. One enthusiastic rant followed by a bloodcurdling yell after the Iowa caucuses, though, cemented his reputation as a loon.
Okay, so sometimes media-created perception squares with reality.
Still, it mostly doesn't. None of us would like to be judged by our worst moment, yet that's often what happens to public figures. Especially those, like Allen, who are literally followed everywhere they go by people with cameras.
This is especially problematic because television gives us the false impression that we "know" celebrities. This leads to occasionally irrational behavior, such as mass outpourings of grief at the death of people we don't know (say, Princess Diana) or obsession with who Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston are sleeping with at the moment (hint: not you). It also leads to shock when people are not who we thought they were (think: O.J. Simpson).
George Allen is my Senator and I've briefly met him in person. I like the guy and think he's probably a decent fellow who grew up in the spotlight as the son of a famous football coach and is trying just a little too hard to be a good ol' boy. But, really, I have no idea. And, unless you are a close friend or have worked with him for a while, neither do you.
*Sentence changed slightly from the original in light of photos revealing Webb's aid does, indeed, have a mohawk.
James H. Joyner, Jr., Ph.D. writes about public policy issues at Outside the Beltway.