The Magazine

George Allen Monkeys Around

Forget the presidential campaign. Can he still win his Senate race?

Oct 2, 2006, Vol. 12, No. 03 • By MATTHEW CONTINETTI
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The main source of information about Allen's youth is his sister Jennifer, the youngest member of the family and the only daughter. Jennifer Allen became a writer for the Washington Post and in 2000 published a memoir, Fifth Quarter, about her upbringing. "The best book about football I've ever read," the novelist Pat Conroy blurbs in the paperback edition. If that's true, then Conroy hasn't read many football books. Fifth Quarter is mainly a catalogue of Jennifer Allen's boyfriends, and an in-depth account of the author's complicated feelings toward her father and her ambivalence about her mother. There is nothing ambivalent about her feelings toward her oldest brother: "I was so happy during the summer of 1969," she writes. "My brother George was leaving home."

Fifth Quarter's early chapters focus on Jennifer's life as an 8-year-old in a testosterone-heavy household--featuring George as well as brothers Greg and Bruce. Jennifer spent most of her time alone in her walk-in closet, "my only quiet and private place in the house." It is clear she lived in fear of her oldest brother George and his friends, who "had the same pork-chop sideburns, greasy-haired scalps, and almost the same broken-toothed look as the inmates on George's favorite album, Johnny Cash, Live from Folsom Prison." In one oft-quoted passage, Jennifer Allen writes:

We all obeyed George. If we didn't, we knew he would kill us. Once, when Bruce refused to go to bed, George hurled him through a sliding glass door. Another time, when Gregory refused to go to bed, George tackled him and broke his collarbone. Another time, when I refused to go to bed, George dragged me up the stairs by my hair. George hoped someday to become a dentist. George said he saw dentistry as a perfect profession--getting paid to make people suffer.

While no one disputes the facts contained in Fifth Quarter (George F. vetted the manuscript before publication), such passages seem designed to present an unflattering picture of the future senator. For one thing, time is condensed; years might have passed between the episodes described. For another, most people know that young siblings get into fights. They say dumb things. And sometimes they accidentally hurt each other badly. It is plain that George was a little wild growing up. "Sen. Allen was a rambunctious kid," David Snepp, Allen's press secretary, told me. "He probably gave heartburn to his mother."

In the early 1970s, while he was at UVA, Allen had little idea what career path to follow. An undergraduate history major, he had no plans to enter politics. "At the time I wanted to be an architect or a lawyer," Allen told THE WEEKLY STANDARD's Fred Barnes earlier this year. "All my ideas of what I wanted to do: lawyer, architect, also possibly getting into ranching or farming. And the architecture, which I still do like, just had too much mountain to it. And so I went to law school."

During the summers, Allen worked on a ranch out West, where he developed his affection for cowboy boots. Another habit, dipping snuff, he acquired from hanging out at Chicago Bears training camps. Allen says he had a youthful interest in politics. He supported Goldwater in 1964, a position that puzzled his parents. Richard Nixon was a friend of his father's from Whittier. And Ronald Reagan, as governor of California, attended L.A. Rams practices, where he was introduced to George F., then in high school.

In 1976, while studying law, Allen received an invitation from conservative activist David Keene to become chair of Young Virginians for Reagan. "They all knew I liked Reagan," Allen told Barnes. "They said, 'You'll do fine, just tell people why you like Ronald Reagan.'" Reagan won the Virginia primary that year, but went on to lose the nomination to incumbent Gerald Ford. But the lessons and thrills of Reagan's insurgent campaign stuck with the young volunteer. Allen was slowly entering the world of electoral politics.

A year later, Allen graduated from the University of Virginia law school. By this time, his family had made the decision to return to California. Allen chose to stay in the Old Dominion. He had come to love the commonwealth's history, its landscape, its people. "I was going to go into a partnership with someone in Charlottesville in an old building built in 1814," he told Barnes. "Mr. Jefferson played the fiddle there, allegedly. I bought this old building." Soon after, his prospective partner opted out of the arrangement. Allen was alone. He renovated his new property himself. "I lived in it while renovating," he said. There was no shower. "I started my law practice and then bought a log house out in the country, in the woods. Charlottesville is where I wanted to take my stand."