SENSE AND SENSITIVITY

Keith argues that my article is “lacking in coherence” on two grounds: that I should not expect papers to print a word George Allen has not himself admitted to using, and that the choice not to print the word evidences a keen awareness of race and racism that we should approve of.

On Keith’s first point, I’m not sure why he thinks the certainty of the allegations should determine the specificity with which they’re related. Should the acts of admitted murderers, for example, be reported with more gruesome detail than those of alleged murderers? If the allegations weren’t newsworthy, they shouldn’t have been in the news at all. I’d say they were, since they came from a range of sources with personal interaction with Allen. I doubt they would have sparked the same interest or had the same staying power with reporters or with voters had they not fit into what was perceived as a pattern of troubling behavior on race. If one accepts that the story is newsworthy, the story is worth telling in full. My point was that leaving the speech act itself to be extrapolated by the reader lessens the impact of that news. I don’t think that’s a courtesy George Allen should expect or deserves. And I don’t think the willingness of friends of his to say he never said it, or of certain blacks to endorse Allen anyway, is particularly reassuring. Of course I was glad that papers printed the word “macaca,” which they must have done in part because the story would be difficult to tell with allusions, and relatedly, because the word doesn’t strike the same chords and isn’t on the same list of “epithets” that too many reporters place “nigger” and “shit” together on. My comparison between the reporting on those two words wasn’t about the proof of politicians saying them – it was about the use of allusion as if with the former, as with the latter, the problem was the coarseness of the language and not the outrageousness of the sentiment.

On Keith’s second point, I of course agree that “the n-word” is loaded and provokes strong reactions. Unfortunately, there are a not insignificant number of Americans who speak about it as if it were a matter of rudeness rather than racism. One of the blights on discourse about race in the United States is the confusion of racism and talking about racism (see Ward Connerly’s attempts to make it illegal for the government to keep track of racial profiling). That’s exemplified in the conflation of using the word “nigger” to refer to blacks and using the word to refer to how racists refer to blacks. The word strikes a chord for a reason. It’s a nasty, ugly word. The New York Times doesn’t demonstrate it’s racial sensitivity to only alluding to that nastiness and ugliness in a story about allegations that a (one-time) presidential aspirant made casual use of it. It just reduces our sense of the story.

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SAM BROWNBACK, CALL YOUR PUBLICIST

I’m not much one for “Great Man” theories of our political history – that is, I think most of the writing on twists and turns in American political history overstates the importance of the sensibilities and psychology of individual politicians and understates social movements, cultural trends, demographic shifts, and so forth – but I’ll readily acknowledge that when it comes to, say, the Republican presidential primary for 2008, there are only so many apparent contenders. And an act of hubris or poor strategery that pulls one out of contention can seriously shift the playing field for everybody else.

That’s why Democrats may come to reconsider their glee over George Allen’s “macaca” muck-up of two months ago if it turns out to have indeed taken Allen out of serious contention for the GOP presidential nomination. Because not long ago, George Allen was well-placed to bear the mantle of “Un-McCain,” a charismatic candidate with the right combination of sterling conservative credentials and cultural compatability (however affected) to excite folks from the GOP base, particularly Christian conservatives, either nonplussed or turned off by a McCain candidacy. The evidence of racial animus on his part could have been just enough to let him take the primary but not the general election.

Now, not so much.

And just as Hillary Clinton’s best chance of taking her party’s nomination is the scenario in which a single charismatic, consenus “Un-Hillary” never quite materializes, for the GOP nod to go to McCain, whose otherwise right-wing record is marred by opposition to global warming, hard money, and torture, and by some carefully chosen symbolic snubs to the base, is the absence of a single viable “Un-McCain.”

Maybe what’s most striking in all this is the lack of a strong McCain alternative to gather in all the GOP activists under one placard. First it was supposed to be Bill Frist. Then he got outplayed by the “Gang of 14” over judicial nominations. And his impressive conversion on the road to Iowa into a religious right zealot was undercut by his betrayal on stem cells.

Rick Santorum, one of the most telegenic elected Republicans out there, from one of the states the party is trying hardest to bring back into its column, is now on track to get kicked out of office by Keystone State voters.

Mike Huckabee has so far failed to make a name for himself for more than losing weight – except with the Club for Growth and the economic right-wingers in its orbit, who hate his guts more than most non-McCain GOPers’.

Mitt Romney, though he pulled off an impressive ground game in the SRLC straw poll six months ago, is still going to have a hard time as the Mormon Governor of Massachusetts exciting the base enough to avert a marriage of convenience to McCain.

Newt Gingrich, like Gary Hart in the lead-up to ’04, seems to have underestimated the staying power of his scandals and overestimated the yearning of the American people for a wonk.

Rudy Giuliani believes in the right to choose.

So it’s not clear who is left to stop the steady flow of strategists, fund-raisers, and activists to John McCain, who is by far the most popular advocate of right-wing politics in the United States. After Macacagate, McCain has at least a passable shot at benefiting from the kind of dynamic that played a key role in elevating Bill Clinton in ’92: the absence of a primary candidate beloved by the party’s base.

And while McCain is beatable, he has the benefit of years of praise not only from starstruck journalists but from short-sighted Democrats who’ve boosted his claims to speak for the center of America.

Meanwhile, you’ve gotta wonder what’s going through the head of Sam Brownback, as staunch a social conservative as you’ll find in the Senate, with no bruising re-election fight in sight, no awkward position in the Republican leadership, and no scandal-ridden press clippings to buck.

EVERY OTHER DAY VOCABULARY

Count me less than totally reassured by George Allen’s latest response to charges he referred to Blacks as “niggers”:

I don’t recall every word I’ve said,” Allen told conservative talk-show host Sean Hannity. “But this portrayal that it was part of my everyday vocabulary is false.”

Did he just save the word for special occasions?

What Allen seems to be maintaining here is that there were at least some situations in which – however much of an effort it may have been – he wouldn’t use the word. Maybe even most. Which probably conflicts with accounts that he threw it around at public events in earshot of strangers. But doesn’t conflict with the developing sense that not so long ago he saw the word as something other than abominable.