One of the most striking aspects of the story is the extent to which Allen resembles George W. Bush. Like Bush, Allen was a child of privilege who adopted a "good ol' boy" persona as an act of rebellion against the culture of the 1960s and 1970s, and then used that persona to get himself elected to office in a Southern state.
However, unlike Bush, Allen has a long history of ugliness on the issue of race, both personally and as a politician. In addition to the professional race-baiting and insensitivity, much of which I documented last year, Lizza confirms reports I heard from readers who attended high school with Allen, who told me his car had the Confederate flag on it and that he spray-painted anti-white graffiti on his school to frame black students.
Lizza also discovers that Allen wore a Confederate flag pin in his high school yearbook photo (in California!), and confronts Allen about it in the most devastating passage of the article:
I stared closely at Allen's smirk in his photo, weighing whether his old classmates were just out to destroy him. And then I noticed something on his collar. It's hard to make out, but then it becomes obvious. Seventeen-year-old George Allen is wearing a Confederate flag pin.
Still, I wasn't sure I'd ask him about it. And then he says something that changes my mind. As a child, Allen tells me, before he even moved to California, he learned about the painful history of the South when his dad would take the kids on long drives from Chicago to New Orleans and other Southern cities for football bowl games. There was one searing memory from those trips he shares with me. "I remember," Allen says, "driving through--somehow, my father was on some back road in Mississippi one time--and we had Illinois license plates. And it was a time when some of the freedom riders had been killed, and somehow we're on this road. And you see a cross burning way off in the fields. I was young at the time. I just remember the sense of urgency as we were driving through the night, a carload of people with Illinois license plates--that this is not necessarily a safe place to be."
Now the pin seemed even worse. Why would a young man with such a sensitive understanding of Southern racial conflict and no Southern heritage wear a Confederate flag in his formal yearbook photo?
I finally ask him if he remembers the pin, explaining that another of his classmates had the same one in his photo, a guy named Deke. "No," Allen says with a laugh. "Where is this picture?" He leans forward over his desk and tightens his lip around the plug of Copenhagen in his mouth. "Hmmm." He pauses. He speaks slowly, apparently searching his memory. "Well, it's no doubt I was rebellious," he says, "a rebellious kid. I don't know. Unless we were doing something for the fun of it. Deke was from Texas. He was a good friend. Let me think." He stretches back in the chair, his boots sticking out from underneath his desk. "Yeah, yeah, that's interesting. I'll have to find it myself." Another pause. "I don't know. We would probably do things to upset people from time to time."
He stammers some more, says he saw Deke in an airport recently. "I don't know, I don't know," he continues. "It could be some sort of prank, or one of our rebellious--we would do different things. But I remember we liked Texas."
The next day, at Allen's request, I send him a copy of the yearbook photo. A few hours later, his office confirms that the pin was indeed a Confederate flag. In an e-mail sent through an aide, Allen says, "When I was in high school in California, I generally bucked authority and the rebel flag was just a way to express that attitude." And then he's off. He explains that he "grew up in a football family where life was integrated sooner than most of the rest of the country." He reminds me of his parole, education, and economic achievements as governor. He also tells me about the money he's trying to secure for minority institutions and an upcoming speaking gig at St. Paul's College, a historically black school in Virginia. "Life is a learning experience," he muses.
I'm glad Allen has learned the error of his ways, but it's too little, too late. Remember, this isn't just about what he did in high school, but what he did as a politician in Virginia up through the mid-1990s. If Allen is the presidential nominee, Republicans can forget about making any progress in attracting black votes. It'll set the party and the country back a decade or more.
Clarification 4/29 5:39 PM: I originally said that George W. Bush, like Allen, was "a non-Southern child of privilege" like Allen in the post above. The description of Bush as "non-Southern" is an arguable point -- Bush's family wasn't from Texas, but he lived there for much of his childhood -- so I've deleted it from the post.