When I attended Bridgewater College-a/k/a the educational mecca of the blessed land south of the Mason Dixon line- I was a second tenor in the college chorale. It was a twenty person group, singing pop standards and some classical stuff, singing for churches, schools, and groups to publicize the school. One year we sang a medley of Beach Boys songs, including the song “California Girls”. Two of my male colleagues got a laugh from us one day when they sang the first line as “Well East Coast girls got hips” instead of “are hip”. When they persisted in practicing it this way, our conductor admonished them and said if you practice it that way, you will sing it that way. Sure enough, our first show came and each of these fellows sang it wrong.
Years later that episode came back to me when I read David Maraniss’s biography of Vince Lombardi entitled “When Pride Still Mattered”. It is one of the best bio’s I have read, and stands with the Curt Sampson’s biography of Ben Hogan as the best sports bio I have encountered. Lombardi preached that “Perfect practice makes perfect”, and demanded such precision in Green Bay Packers (and later Washington Redskins) practice that the games were a breeze.
It is a pity that George Allen was not aware of that anecdote, or else the whole “macaca” incident might have been averted. More to the point, he likely would not have given us a window into his modus operandi, and done long term damage to his presidential hopes.
I have known Senator Allen for years, and I have never seen or heard him loose a racist thought or comment. I have also noted that he seems to be a shoot from the hip sort of guy, and I imagine it likely that he absorbs things around him and has the ability to pull it all together quickly, but without much reflection.
That being the case, here is what I think happened in the whole Macaca Incident. Webb campaigner Siddarth begins shadowing Allen. Allen campaigners note his hairstyle, and start calling him Mohawk (and truth be told, his hairstyle is closer to a Mohawk than to a mullet, despite Siddarth’s later claims). This nickname catches on among the young Allen staffers. At some point, they start to get annoyed at the shadowing.
Then some bright young staffer (the BYS) discovers the word “macaca”, and in the type of earnest and clever maliciousness that has always been the province of the youthful the BYS start referring to Siddarth by the new term, made that much more delicious because no one knows what the word really means…you know, sort of like a kid saying FUBAR in front of their friends and giggling when their friends don’t know what the acronym means.
Unfortunately, Allen hears them using the term, makes an assumption it is an innocent term, does not ask them what it means, adds it into his normal thought culling process, and thinks it would be a slick point to use Siddarth’s presence at his campaign rallies to highlight Webb’s lack of connection to Virginia…and he would use the term his BYS used, because using the nickname would personalize the fellow, and make the point effectively without being vicious.
Such a clever idea, such horrendous results. Imperfect practice, imperfect results.
I do think something close to this process is how the Allen campaign got to where it is. More important, if I have this right it shows how George Allen thinks. I don’t think he is a racist. I do think he is too often reflexive when he should be reflective. I think maybe he does not internally vet his comments in the way most of us do. This tendency is institutionally controlled in the Senate, with it’s long legislative practices. This tendency is not institutionally controlled in the executive branch…and in fact can be terribly damaging
I think that “macaca” will kill George Allen’s presidential hopes. Not because he it shows him to be a racist, but because it shows him to be undisciplined and too inclined to glibness…and the party regulars and professionals, knowing what a narrow margin the GOP is operating on in 2008, will turn away from the ideologically sound candidate to someone they are more confident will not shoot themselves in the foot.
And someday, you will see George Allen’s “Macaca” in the history books with Nelson Rockefeller’s divorce, George Romney’s “Brainwash”, Ed Muskie’s
”Snowflakes” speech, and Gary Hart daring the press to catch him as examples of where hubris and failure to perfectly practice doomed a once promising presidential bid.