A SAVAGE JOURNEY INTO THE FLACCID HEART OF STATE LEVEL POLITICS
One evening, I called the White House switchboard — the keypad sign-of-the-cross of (202) 456-2580 — while drinking and watching the news.
WH: Hello. This is White House.
Tyler Bass: Hello, may I please speak to the President?
WH: . . . [hangup]
Jesus, I thought. Why even post the number?
RICHMOND, VA. - Behind U.S. Democratic Senate candidate Jim Webb meandered a mentally challenged woman, middle aged and extremely happy to see him. Happy just to be there.
Mr. Webb talked to some of his more able-minded and eager supporters with his back turned to the woman and myself, a member of the press. “There’s more where this came from,” said a glassy eyed supporter as he waved a check around over his head.
Another follower sporting a Webb T-shirt incessantly tapped the candidate, alerting him to the bizarre woman Webb actively avoided. She had begun calling out for him, by name, over the rabble. She became, by this point in the story, too difficult to ignore.
On August 28, during the opening fanfare at Webb headquarters located at Radford Ave., a Wall Street Journal poll showed Webb in the lead, despite now obvious associations with the mentally handicapped, enjoying a 1.3 percent advantage continuing upward momentum after the primaries.
“Jim! Jim!” the woman moaned as her chin quivered in anticipation. She wanted more than his attention. 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 persistently motioned to attract her hero. Eventually, Webb politely greeted her, and said he could make no comment on her shirt because “the press was nearby.”
The woman’s shirt referenced a controversial and widely analyzed incident which took place in Breaks, Va. on August 11. The Webb team posted video footage captured by a campaign volunteer, Shekar Sidharth. The resulting imbroglio caused Sen. Allen’s poll numbers to plummet dramatically. 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 accusations that Allen was appealing to base Appalachian provincialism. 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, because Webb has never heard bad words before.
Jim Webb himself holds the distinction of having produced and written the trite story behind “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.” Hollywood studios would not again meet its own precedent of cultural insensitivity until the 2008 release of Hurt Locker. Apparently forgetful, or — more likely — completely ignorant of the 1890 Wounded Knee Massacre of hundreds of Native Americans (to name just one time and place), Webb said in a 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” equated with white Jim Crow laws.
Allen, on the other hand, 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, a view shared by the same U.S. government whose leaders wanted him assassinated.
Standing in the gravel parking lot of Barnes’ Manufacturing of Kenbridge, Va., I made meager acquaintance with Carol Watson, mayor of nearby Victoria. Soon, Allen’s extravagant campaign bus pulled up and his press secretary, Bill Bozin, with bleached, gelled hair and shiny black shoes, stepped out followed by none other than Allen himself. Senator Allen was a tall man with dark hair and a red face, presumably from drinking. He slouches slightly, presumably also from drinking. An impatient crowd gathered around the Barnes main office — the office was brown with vinyl siding about the size of a double wide trailer — when Allen appeared wearing cowboy boots, just like his hero, George Bush.
I stepped into Barnes’ office, who bored me with asinine accounts of business as usual in his lumber plant.
Allen asked if Barnes exported anything.
“Nope,” replied Barnes.
The senator wore a look of disappointment.
Allen asked him what he was dipping, as 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 package of Marlboro Lights sported a local manufacturer, but the Senator snatched them away. “Good product,” he said. “That’s made in Richmond.” With an assertive nod of the head, he then handed them back to me.
As I reflect on those blue moons, when I would, at times, pick half-smoked cigarette butts out of ashtrays to stave off panic attacks, dark realizations flooded my consciousness. UST, Inc., I recalled, the company that manufactures Copenhagen, is one of Allen’s largest campaign contributors.
During what’s known as the Homestead debate, Senator Allen once said, “The people [of Iraq], regardless if they’re Shiite, Sunni or Kurd, are grateful for America liberating their country.” But the answer Allen gave at that time alleged religious differences were 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. Even if it’s the most ignorant shit you’ll ever have the chance to say, you’ll get to say it, unfortunately for Senator Allen Macaca.
When it came to Iraq, Webb could only refer me to a substantial amount of paperwork he said existed about the issue. As Allen insinuated that Sunni Muslims were suppressing fellow citizens, Webb 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,” said Webb on “Meet The Press.” “We have terrorists in Iraq because we went in there.” During that program, the two candidates differ because Allen seemed to want long-term U.S. military bases in Iraq, while Webb sees those as irrelevant if Iraq does prove safe. If Webb meant what he said as true, one thing was certain: His son was serving in Iraq at the time.
The answers I got 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 believed makes 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, 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 Communication Commission is putting into it now. The confessions of the latter 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 because he probably did not use any.
To name just one example, however, 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, clearly avoiding my question.
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.” White people are more deserving of an income than nonwhites, I took her to mean at the time.
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 aloud. The Iraq War, she opined, is “unjustified” and “a drain on the economy.” As an educator to juvenile inmates, she also worried 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 went small. His 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.”
After a blank pause, he growled, “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 is 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, buying votes with free hot dogs, lemonade and goods brought out by volunteers. The crowd hissed when they heard Allen voted against the use of stem cells for scientific research.
One man became so spirited during the speech that he yelled out 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.