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Silly Takes A More Serious Turn?

(AP Photo/Matthew Putney)
Have the silly semantics of the Virginia Senate race suddenly gotten a little more serious? After weeks spent talking about the still-strange "macaca" incident and asking what Senator George Allen knew about his Jewish roots and when did he know it, the campaign has suddenly turned a little more serious. No, we're still not debating the war in Iraq, the federal deficit, health care, energy policy or any of those pesky "issues." Those things don't seem to be important in a race that could decide the balance of the U.S. Senate for the next two years. But at least we have finally progressed to discussing the possible use of a much more serious word – the "N-word."

Senator Allen spent most of yesterday denying accusations made in a Salon article by three former University of Virginia football teammates that he had used the racial epithet in the early 1970s and the issue dominates news of the race today. I think it has been somewhat frivolous for the media to obsess over "macaca" and Allen's heritage in this race because it does a disservice to Virginia voters who just might have more pressing issues on their minds. Those are both legitimate questions to discuss, just not to the exclusion of everything else. However, when you throw the "N-word" into the mix, it does kick matters to a higher level.

Those who have allowed these issues to dominate this race will defend themselves by pointing to a "pattern" of similar questions Allen has faced in past campaigns. A New Republic article earlier this year chronicled that history, one in which Allen had to face questions about displaying a confederate flag in his living room and trying to explain why he once kept a noose in his law office. So these latest accusations carry a more profound sting.

According to the original Salon report, three former teammates of Allen's on the UVA football team said that the then-college Quarterback "repeatedly used an inflammatory racial epithet and demonstrated racist attitudes toward blacks during the early 1970s." One, Dr. Ken Shelton, said: "Allen said he came to Virginia because he wanted to play football in a place where 'blacks knew their place.' … He used the N-word on a regular basis back then." The two others spoke only on condition of anonymity. In one of the most bizarre accusations, Shelton told the following story about a supposed hunting trip with Allen:

Shelton said he also remembers a disturbing deer hunting trip with Allen on land that was owned by the family of Billy Lanahan, a wide receiver on the team. After they had killed a deer, Shelton said he remembers Allen asking Lanahan where the local black residents lived. Shelton said Allen then drove the three of them to that neighborhood with the severed head of the deer. "He proceeded to take the doe's head and stuff it into a mailbox," Shelton said.
Allen called the allegations "false" and told reporters, "I don't ever remember ever using that word. That word was not a part of my vocabulary as was asserted in this article. It wasn't then, it hasn't been since then and it is not now. It is not who I was, and it is not who I am. It is contrary to every fiber of my being." Since publication of that article, several other former teammates (including a roommate of Shelton's) have disputed the accusations and said such language does not mesh with the Allen they knew leaving us at a he-said/he-said stalemate of sorts.

Curiously, one prominent political scientist and pundit has inserted himself into this story by supporting the accusations. UVA professor Larry Sabato told "Hardball's" Chris Matthews last night he "absolutely" believes Allen used the "N-word" in college. Pressed to explain how he knows that, Sabato only responded, "I'm simply going to stay with what I know is the case and the fact is he did use the 'N-word,' whether he's denying it or not." Sabato later told the Virginian-Pilot, "My sources are former classmates who came to me with stories that matched up. … I never solicited them. They came to me during the past few months."

One of the most frequently quoted political pundits in the country, Sabato has a special expertise in Virginia politics and is especially familiar with Allen, having graduated from UVA the same year. (Hotline's Chuck Todd examined the relationship between the two last year in the Washingtonian magazine as part of a profile of Allen as a presidential hopeful). It seems more than a little unusual for a pundit to take sides in a dispute of this nature but Sabato brings a level of credibility to the story so we'll have to see how that angle plays out from here.

This all leaves us at your basic they-said/they-said impasse at the moment. More importantly, it leaves the race embroiled over allegations of events that may or may not have occurred 30 years ago. Sounds a little like the 2004 presidential campaign to me, where calculated campaigns were able to keep the media occupied fighting the Vietnam War for a second time rather than the one that was happening (and still is in case anyone forgets) in Iraq. Swift boat attacks against John Kerry and dogged attempts to prove some dishonorable behavior in President Bush's National Guard service were deemed as important as the debate over future national security issues. Why?

I'm not saying the press is wrong to report on these stories. What does concern me is the media's habit of allowing them to crowd out everything else in the campaign. The Washington Post had the story of Allen's heritage on its front page at least twice last week – when is the last time they examined the candidate's positions on the issues in such a prominent way. It sounds like harping but it's hard to believe voters should care more about finding out who is Jewish than what our government should be doing about immigration or why the press is more interested in chasing down three-decade-old recollections than asking why nobody can articulate a plan for ending the war in Iraq.

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