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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Not long ago, George Felix Allen was among the three or four Republicans most likely to win his party's 2008 presidential nomination. He was a known quantity: Virginia governor, then U.S. senator, a conservative with a pleasant demeanor, and a loyal supporter of President Bush. He had attracted top campaign talent. His campaign manager, Dick Wadhams, had guided John Thune to an upset victory over Senate minority leader Tom Daschle in 2004, and was widely expected to run Allen's presidential operation once his new boss glided through to reelection. Prominent Republican operatives, including Ed Gillespie and Mary Matalin, were backing Allen's reelection. And Allen was a talented fundraiser with dependable sources of cash.

It was easy to document Allen's political promise. Throughout 2005, a National Journal "insiders' poll" named him the frontrunner for the nomination. In August 2005, Chuck Todd, editor of the Hotline, wrote in the Washingtonian that "inside the GOP, there's a sense that if you put Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush in a blender, the resulting concoction would be George Allen." That November, National Review editor Richard Lowry opined that Allen "perhaps has a better chance of winning the nomination than any other Republican." This sentiment carried over into the summer of 2006, when the American Spectator's David Holman wrote that "a familiarity with George Allen explains his presidential contender status: notable biography, solid political record, and affable demeanor." Kathleen Antrim, a conservative columnist who is working on a biography of Allen, told me she came up with the idea for the book shortly after the 2004 election, when she looked at the possible 2008 Republican presidential field and said, "Who else could it be?"

As it turns out, a bunch of folks. In recent weeks, Allen has gone from presidential contender to embattled senator. His mishandling of a name-calling incident, and his ham-handed denial and subsequent revelation that his mother was raised Jewish, have almost eliminated him from the field of serious presidential candidates and even jeopardized his Senate seat. While still trailing in the polls, Allen's Democratic opponent, the author and former secretary of the Navy James Webb, has pulled within striking distance. This reflects a substantial swing in public opinion; until recently Allen's lead over Webb was in double digits. Also until recently, a group of senior Republican consultants met regularly to discuss Allen's strategy for the upcoming presidential campaign. Today, those meetings are devoted exclusively to helping the senator win reelection. Having just stepped out upon the national stage, George Allen now finds himself in danger of being shuffled off of it.

Allen was born in March 1952, in Whittier, California. His father, George Herbert Allen, was the football coach at the local college. (Richard Nixon is the school's most prominent alum.) Allen's mother Etty was a French immigrant from Tunisia who had met George H. Allen in 1950, during a trip to Sioux City, Iowa, where she was visiting friends. When they met, George H. was head coach at Morningside College. "She was introduced to me by the head of the speech department," he told Washington Post reporters William Gildea and Kenneth Turan for their 1972 book The Future is Now, "at a, what the heck kind of thing was it, it was a play, a play at the community theater." Soon after, George H. flew to Tunis to propose. They married in 1951.

"I grew up in a football family," Sen. Allen likes to say. It was an itinerant upbringing. From Whittier, the Allens moved to Los Angeles, where George H. worked for one year as an offensive coach for the Rams. From L.A., the family moved to the Chicago suburbs, where George H. apprenticed under the legendary George Halas, the founder, owner, coach, and onetime player for the Bears. From Chicago, it was back to Los Angeles, where George H. became head coach for the Rams. Eventually, the Allens would leave Los Angeles for Washington, where George H. coached the Redskins.

Through all these family moves, football was the constant. It was the family religion. At age four, George F. got his first football, the modified kind typically used to train future quarterbacks. "It was at least twice as heavy as normal," he told the Washington Post in 1981. George F. was a natural quarterback. His senior year in high school, he led the Palos Verdes team to a 7-2 season. He earned athletic scholarships to UCLA and Princeton, opting for UCLA but only staying there a year. When his family moved to Washington, Allen followed, matriculating at the University of Virginia. He quarterbacked at UVA, too, but he wasn't quite up to the college game.