Once a Boob, Always a Boob?

George Allen’s biggest problem isn’t racial insensitivity.

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U.S. Sen. George Allen, R-Va.

Republicans and Democrats seem to have launched the first contest of the 2008 presidential campaign season: which candidate can be more boobish on the topic of people of Indian descent living in America. First, Joe Biden had a go, suggesting you couldn’t go into a Dunkin Donuts or 7-Eleven without an Indian accent. Now it’s Virginia Sen. George Allen’s turn.

At a campaign rally in southwestern Virginia, Allen singled out a campaign worker of his opponent, apparently the only person of color at the event. S.R. Sidarth, a 20-year-old of Indian descent, was there to film the speech, and Allen spoke to him from the stage, calling him “Macaca” and welcoming him to America, specifically that part of Virginia where Allen guessed his re-election opponent, Democrat James Webb, had never ventured.

Immediately Allen, who has his eye on the 2008 GOP presidential nomination, found himself in the deep macaca of accusations of racial insensitivity. Depending on whom you talk to, Macaca is either the genus for a type of monkey found mainly in Asia, a town in South Africa, or a racial slur used against African immigrants. What seemed more offensive than the word’s specific meanings was its all-purpose nature. Macaca sounded like the fraternity TV-room appellation for “funny-looking foreigner.” That wasn’t what the former governor had in mind at all, protested Allen’s campaign. The senator was making an allusion to Mr. Sidarth’s hairstyle, which until that moment in human history had been known as a mullet. Allen and his campaign should at least get points for etymological creativity.

Whatever the meaning of macaca has been, the word may come to be defined as the doomed dance a candidate performs while watching his presidential hopes flame out. 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.

For potential presidential candidates, the bar for showing intellectual heft will be higher after George W. Bush than it was before him. Based on the conversations I’ve had with GOP elites and fund-raisers, the candidate most likely to suffer from this heightened standard is George Allen. The worry is that despite Allen’s strong standing among conservatives, he mirrors too many of Bush’s goofy, amiable, towel-snapping qualities. Those are all on display in the “macaca” video. In a general election, these Republicans worry that Allen’s Bush-like cast could be deadly.

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. But sometimes the facts don’t much matter. As George Bush proved, a caricature is hard to scrub off. Bush’s attendance at both Yale and Harvard and four major electoral victories haven’t helped him shake the dummy label.

Allen’s supporters know that his apparent lack of gravitas is a major liability. The senator has been meeting with foreign-policy experts, and Iraq specialists in particular, to bone up on the thorny international issues of the day. This would seem prudent for any potential candidate. Other ‘08 hopefuls like Mitt Romney and Mark Warner are similarly cramming. But Allen does not have Romney’s reputation for cranial wattage. At least one person who has been wooed by the Allen camp came away from a meeting with the senator with this kiss-off of his chances: “Too much like Bush.”

Allen’s predicament is a problem for any candidate campaigning in the YouTube era, when every remark can be captured and used against you. But it’s also a problem that began bedeviling candidates long before everyone had a digital camera. Unflattering moments become a candidate’s signature when they confirm existing stereotypes. In 1972, when Ed Muskie appeared to cry over rough campaign tactics in the New Hampshire primary, it fed the rap that he was too emotional. (Never mind that the tears might have been snowflakes.) In 1996, when Bob Dole accidentally careened off a stage in Chico, Calif., the chatter was all about whether he was too old for the job. (Never mind that the then-73-year-old quickly shook off the fall.) Even if George Allen can somehow explain why his remark wasn’t insensitive, it may take him longer to prove that his thoughtlessness isn’t a sign of a lasting condition.