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The Nation | NEWS ANALYSIS

Quicksilver Image in Senator's Mirror

September 22, 2006|Faye Fiore | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — A rising star in the Republican Party and darling of the Christian right was remarkably flummoxed this week as he acknowledged his previously undisclosed Jewish roots.

It's not the first time George Allen -- a Virginia senator running for reelection with an eye on the White House -- has undergone an identity transplant.

More than 30 years ago his makeover was by design, when the Palos Verdes High School quarterback and son of the legendary Rams coach of the same name methodically shed his California cool to adopt the folkways and mores of the rebel South, grooving on Confederate flags the way his peers did surfboards.

This time, though, the transformation of his public persona was foisted upon him during a televised debate when a reporter asked about his 83-year-old mother's Jewish heritage.

If the first personality transplant from California to country served Allen well in his ascent from Virginia congressman to governor to senator, the latest flap may have spoiled his prospects as a leading presidential candidate -- not because of his ancestry, but because of the way he dealt with it.

The issue was one more in a series of gaffes in Allen's campaign against Democrat Jim Webb that revealed a quick temper and a certain tone-deafness about the touchy issues of race and ethnicity.

"George Allen is damaged goods for the 2008 presidential contest," said Larry J. Sabato, a political science professor at the University of Virginia, where he was also one of Allen's classmates. "The controversy has nothing to do with his having Jewish blood. It has everything to do with how he handled the situation ... why he reacted so vociferously."

Every successful politician tries to project an identity, their actual backgrounds notwithstanding. Ronald Reagan was the avuncular reflection of Middle America. Bill Clinton was the bright boy from hardscrabble circumstances. George W. Bush is the plain-spoken Texan.

And George Allen has sought to cast himself as an uncomplicated conservative who wears cowboy boots with his suits, spits tobacco and talks in football metaphors. His father's move to coach the Washington Redskins brought the family to Virginia, and almost overnight Allen became a Southerner, transferring from UCLA to the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where he also attended law school before he launched his political career.

Despite his attempts to craft a new identity, he has spent the campaign mud-wrestling with who he is. A Virginian who isn't really from Virginia. A senator who says he is a paragon of tolerance but blurts what some perceive as a racial slur at his opponent's dark-skinned aide. And now, the product of a Christian family who has just found out he has Jewish ancestry.

None of those subjects are what Allen planned to discuss in a reelection campaign that was supposed to be a springboard to a 2008 bid for the White House. Last year, a survey of Washington insiders ranked Allen the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination.

But trouble began this spring when an article in the New Republic detailed his youthful fascination with Southern culture. He sported a Confederate-flag pin in his senior picture at Palos Verdes High, and classmates recalled another flag on his red Mustang.

While campaigning for governor in 1993, he acknowledged displaying the Confederate banner in his Virginia living room and a noose in his law office. He said the flag was part of a collection and the noose an Old West motif.

But those unusual displays, while cementing his Dixie image, also cast his record on race in a different light. As a Virginia lawmaker in 1984, he voted against a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. As governor a decade later, he proclaimed a Confederate History and Heritage Month, celebrating the South's "four-year struggle for independence and sovereign rights," but never mentioned slavery.

Much of that was dismissed as an under-evolved political past that Allen had moved beyond. Then, during an August campaign stop, the senator referred to his opponent's Indian American aide as "macaca" -- a word for a kind of monkey that is also a French slur.

He has repeatedly apologized, saying that the word was "made up" and that he was unaware of its offensive connotation. But because his mother was born in Tunisia, where French is spoken, some wondered whether he had learned it from her.

In the firecracker chain of events that political campaigns have a way of igniting, reporters were soon looking into the background of Henrietta "Etty" Allen, who still lives in Palos Verdes Estates. She could not be reached. (Sen. Allen's father died in 1990.)

A Jewish newspaper, the Forward, determined that Allen was descended from a prominent Jewish family.

That led to the question posed at a debate Monday: "Could you please tell us whether your forebears include Jews, and if so, at which point Jewish identity might have ended?"

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