RICHMOND, Va. – One evening, I called the White House switchboard drinking and watching the news.
WH: Hello. White House.
TSB: Hello, may I please speak to the President?
WH: . . . [hang up]
Jesus, I thought. Why do they even post that number?
Behind Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb, a mentally challenged woman, waist deep in middle age, seemed so happy to see him. Mr. Webb talked to eager supporters while he stood with his back to the woman and me. “There’s more where this came from,” said one bearing a check. Another with a Webb t-shirt kept tapping the candidate to alert him to the woman, who had begun calling out for him. By that drizzly August 28 at the opening of Webb’s RVA Headquarters on Radford Ave., a Wall Street Journal/Zogby poll was showing Webb in the lead with a 1.3 percent advantage, continuing his momentum upwards from the primary.
“Jim! Jim!” the woman continued to moan as her chin quivered in anticipation. The candidate initially avoided contact with her because of her custom t-shirt: a picture of Sen. George Allen with the screen-printed words “The Real Macaca” below his grinning face. She gestured to her shirt and tried to wave her hero over. Eventually, Webb politely greeted her, and said he could not comment on the shirt because press was nearby.
That shirt referenced a widely analyzed August 11 incident in Breaks, Va. The Webb team posted video footage captured by a campaign volunteer, Shekar Sidharth. The resulting imbroglio caused Sen. Allen’s poll numbers to take the fast nosedive from July. In front of a small crowd of supporters, he said right into Sidharth’s camera:
“This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt, macaca, or whatever his name is, he’s with my opponent. He’s following us around everywhere. And it’s just great. We’re going to places all over Virginia, and he’s having it on film, and it’s great to have you here. And you show it to your opponent [read: Webb], because he’s never been there, and will probably never come, so it’s good for you to see what it’s like out here in the real world.” Allen mocked Webb for traveling to the West Coast instead to raise money from a “bunch of Hollywood movie moguls,” right before finishing, “So welcome. Let’s give a welcome to macaca, here. Welcome to America and the real world of Virginia.” From there, our junior Senator segued into remarks about the U.S. War on Extreme Fear.
Because Sidharth is of Indian descent (and a lifelong Virginian), the speech fueled accusation that Allen was appealing to base provincialism in Appalachia. After a slew of apologies, Allen claimed he made up the term “macaca”, and – while the word by some academic accounts is one French colonialists use to refer to ethnic Tunisian natives – Allen’s francophone and Tunisian-American mother said she had to look the term up in her dictionary, where she claimed not to find it. Webb maintained that Allen knew what the word meant, and that its use offended him.
Jim Webb himself holds the distinction of having produced and written the story for “Rules of Engagement,” a 2000 film the American Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee called at the time “the most vicious anti-Arab racist film ever made by a major Hollywood studio.” Apparently forgetful or ignorant of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre of hundreds of Native Americans (to name just one time and place), Webb said on the Sept. 17 “Meet The Press” debate, “African-Americans are the only ethnic group in this country that have suffered from deliberate discrimination and, and exclusion by the government over generations.” He says that Affirmative Action programs originally had good intentions, but – when they support everyone except white people (especially poor white people, as Webb says) – they constitute “state-sponsored racism” as bad as Jim Crow laws.
Allen opposes affirmative action unequivocally. In his youth, he had a penchant for the Confederacy, and as a Delegate opposed a holiday honoring Martin Luther King.
Standing in the gravel parking lot of Barnes’ Manufacturing in Kenbridge, I stood around making meager acquaintance with Carol Watson, the mayor of nearby Victoria. Soon, Allen’s big campaign bus pulled up, and his Press Secretary Bill Bozin, hair gelled and bleached with shiny black shoes, stepped out followed by Allen himself. The Senator is a tall man with dark hair, and a red face. He slouches slightly. The crowd waited patiently around the Barnes main office (brown with vinyl siding about the size of a double wide trailer) as the man stepped up in his cowboy boots.
I stepped into Mr. Barnes’ office to hear his accounts of business at the lumber-gathering plant. Barnes’ accounts were so so.
Allen asked, “Are you exporting anything?”
“Nope,” said Barnes, and the Senator looked disappointed.
Allen asked him what he was dipping, and the two men pulled out identical tins of Copenhagen. He commented on how that stuff was grown locally. I looked down into my front shirt pocket to see if my Marlboro Lights indicated a local manufacturer, but the Senator had already snatched them away. “Good product,” he said. “That’s made in Richmond.”
Incidentally, UST, Inc., the company that makes the addictive psychoactive Copenhagen, is one of Allen’s biggest contributors. On those blue moons when I have picked half-smoked cigarettes out of ashtrays to stall off the panic attacks, this all kind of smacks me in the forehead. Don’t get me wrong, though. This is my fault.
In my last report, I accounted Allen saying at the Homestead debate, “The people [of Iraq], regardless if they’re Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, are grateful for America liberating their country.” But the answer Allen gave me alleges religious differences as dangerously fracturing Iraq’s national unity. “There will be some Sunnis who will not be grateful because everyone will get to have their say,” said Allen.
When it came to Iraq, Webb only referred me to the substantial amount of paperwork he has sitting around about the issue. As Allen insinuates that some Sunni have been suppressing fellow citizens, Webb has said for a long time that it wasn’t our military’s business to fix the situation with occupation. “We didn’t go into Iraq because of terrorism,” he said on the “Meet The Press.” “We have terrorists in Iraq because we went in there.” During that program, the two candidates differ because Allen seemed to seek long-term U.S. military bases in Iraq, while Webb sees those as irrelevant if Iraq does prove safe. If Webb’s word was true, his son is serving in Iraq right now.
The answers I get out of Jim Webb and George Allen regarding net neutrality outlined the quintessential differences between the two major parties. Allen said he wanted a “permanent prohibition” on “tax commissars” he hought make your online access a hassle through government Internet-regulation fees. “I don’t want people’s internet bills to look like their phone bills,” he said, the analogy hinting at charges you might pay for going over your monthly phone minutes. But “if you legislate too much,” he added, “you will slow the growth.”
Jim Webb told me that he doesn’t want surfers to have to “pay all of those extra fees” that Internet service providers might attempt to charge others for special services. In short, George Allen thinks that government interference will mess up the speed of Internet growth, while Webb thinks it’s worth the time the Federal Communications Commission is putting into it now. The latter man’s confessions align more closely with advocacy groups such as Save The Internet, which supports the FCC’s traditional definitions of net neutrality, but he did not volunteer the sources of the debate if he knew them at all. To name just one example, STI claims that sometime back in April, America Online was briefly blocking all customer emails that mentioned dearaol.com, a campaign opposing the company’s attempts to charge for the most reliable email services.
After the short Allen meet-and-greet, I hit the nearby streets. Stephanie Landry, employee of Kenbridge’s Moe’s Italian Restaurant said that the issues most important to her were abortion (against), gay marriage (against), illegal immigration, and guns.
“Where would you draw the line on guns, though?” I asked. “That is, between your run-of-the-mill shotgun and the nuclear bomb?”
“The nuclear bomb, I would draw that there,” said Landry with a smile.
Landry’s family inspires her views on immigration policy. “My Dad and I were talking the other day; a lot of the [working] Mexicans are sending that money out of Lunenberg County.”
Down the block from Moe’s, I caught up with Lunenburg County resident Roberta Ricker inside a local library. She claimed that half of the workers in the county’s manufacturing plants were illegal immigrants. “Without Hispanics,” she said, “the manufacturers wouldn’t know what to do.” She was also worried about the progress of the No Child Left Behind Act. “Why be supportive [of the Act], and then cut the money in the budget?” she wondered. The Iraq War, she opined, is “unjustified” and “a drain on the economy.” As an educator to Juvenile inmates, she worried aloud that the corrections system “isn’t working right.”
Later that day, I made my way back across the RVA expressway and to that rally. When I found a moment, I walked up to Jim Webb and asked him, “What is a terrorist?”
A long stare, and his pupils were small and chest stuck out and he looked pissed. That long and intense stare felt somewhere between, C’mon, you little treasonous punk. Don’t insult this rally’s patriotism, and Dear God. Moral Decay has progressed so much that no one can tell the difference between good and evil.
Finally, he asked gruffly, “Why?”
“Well, we call a lot of people terrorists,” I said. “Some people call the United States terrorists. I was just wondering if you could give a transcendent definition.”
He replied that a terrorist was a “quasi-military person” “who represents a cause and is not associated with a nation state.” It is my belief that his answer reveals a telling, if tacit, policy difference between his opponent and him. During the Homestead debate, Allen alone characterized Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. But because Hezbollah’s political leaders are elected, it does not strictly fit with Webb’s definition. To me, anyway, Hezbollah seems a lot like the Irish Republican Army used to be.
On illegal immigration, Webb told me, “Build a wall. Keep them out.” The Democrats continued to rally that day with free hot dogs, lemonade and goods brought by volunteers. The crowd hissed when they heard that Allen voted against incorporating new lines of stem cells into publicly funded use. One man became so spirited during that speech he yelled that one or more of the Bush Administration’s actions was “bullshit”. Moments later, I caught up with him: Gary Agisin, an RVA native. I asked him about illegal immigration, and he told me, “We need more immigrants – it brings in more jobs.” Sure enough, he made a strange bedfellow with Webb.
In the crowd, I ran into State Senator Creigh Deeds, a man who just made an unsuccessful bid for state attorney general, and started rambling hopelessly about legalizing marijuana. Then, my driver who accompanied me to the Allen event began to joke with Deeds about Allen’s Press Secretary’s high-maintenance fashion stylings. Deeds couldn’t resist teasing Allen: “He surrounds himself with gay men!”
The Human Rights Committee and Alliance For Marriage kindly urge your participation in the upcoming referendum on a state constitutional amendment banning homosexual marriages and unions.