Political Corner: Questions About Sen. Allen Comments

Juan Williams discusses top political news of the week with Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland, and the Rev. Joseph Watkins, a member of the government-relations group, Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney. This week's discussion includes the recent claims that Sen. George Allen (R-VA) made racist comments during his time in college. Allen vehemently denies the claims.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

I'm Farai Chideya and this is NEWS & NOTES.

For some of this week's political highlights, we turn now to NPR's Senior Correspondent Juan Williams and two Beltway-savvy guests for Political Corner. Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS: Thanks, Farai. We're joined now by Ron Walters, professor of political science at the University of Maryland. Professor Walters' latest book is called Freedom is Not Enough. Also with us, Reverend Joseph Watkins. He's a member of the government relations firm at Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney, and served in the first President Bush's administration. Gentlemen, welcome to Political Corner.

Reverend JOSEPH WATKINS (Member, Government Relations Group, Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney): Thanks for having us.

Professor RON WALTERS (Political Science, University of Maryland; Author, Freedom is Not Enough): Good to be with you.

WILLIAMS: Let me start with Senator George Allen who has encountered some turbulence in his political campaign on his way to what looked like a coronation - that it was going to be an easy reelection campaign for George Allen in the Senate race in Virginia.

But the senator seems to have hurt himself, first with reports about wearing confederate flag pins and having confederate flags. This report came out in the New Republic back in May, I believe. And then subsequently calling an aide to his challenger macaca and having to explain that. And then saying that somehow he was offended when people asked him whether or not he had Jewish heritage. Saying it was a matter of casting aspersions either on his integrity or on his religion to bring up this topic. Now you have people saying that he was using the N word when he was back in college in the ‘70s.

Joe Watkins, do you think that the senator has severely damaged himself and his chances to be reelected?

Rev. WATKINS: I think this latest episode where he has been accused - I mean, this is an allegation. And, mind you, it's a 35-year-old allegation. It's an allegation by somebody who went to college with the senator who says now that he heard that some of the white people on the team said that George Allen used that word often in conversation. Then he also heard that apparently on a hunting trip he wanted to take a deer's head and put it in somebody's mailbox. And he was looking specifically for a black family's mailbox to put it in.

Well, these are allegations and they're old allegations. And if I were the senator, the way I would address them is I'd say, you know what? Thirty-five years is a long time ago. I don't remember having done anything like that. But if I did do something that silly, I certainly apologize for it and I hope you won't hold me accountable today for what I did when I was a teenager. But I'm certainly not that person now, and then go on about your business.

But this is - why would this guy, the man who's making these allegations, why would he suddenly six weeks from Election Day be so offended? Wouldn't he have been offended 20 years ago or 35 years ago when it first happened? And why now does it come out? It's got to let you know that Webb and his people certainly see this as a way to try to damage George Allen.

WILLIAMS: So what I'm hearing from you as a political professional is that you believe that he can't insulate himself against this damage - that it is not fatal to the campaign?

Rev. WATKINS: Absolutely not. I think that a 35-year-old allegation is not at all fatal to his campaign, that if I were George Allen - if that's the worst they can do to me - I would just stick to the key topics in the campaign debate and move forward.

WILLIAMS: Ron Walters, I want to ask you then to take the other tact. To imagine that you're in Jim Webb, the Democratic nominee's, shoes. Jim Webb has said that, you know, yes, he used the N word in one of his books. But he says he has never used the N word as a slur against anyone, which is the charge against Senator Allen. How do you think Jim Webb should be handling this?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, I think Jim Webb ought to talk about the difference between using that word - which a lot of people use in one way, in sort of entertainment way - and another use of that word, which is really racist. And we're not just talking about anybody here, we're talking about a roommate of George Allen's. That's very different. That takes on the ring of a lot of credibility.

So we're not just talking about an allegation here. We're talking about something that a roommate heard.

WILLIAMS: Well, how would you respond to what Joe Watkins said about it being 35 years old?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, that gives us something of the mindset of the mature man. And the question is whether or not he still retains that kind of mindset. Because he grew up attempting to ingratiate himself into a southern culture and to try to do some of the things that sort of good old boys did. You know, boys will be boys, but some of the things the boys did were racist and without conscience.

And so some of this, I think, is coming back to bite him. And I think given that, I think his presidential aspirations are all but done. And he's going to struggle really to hold on to his Senate seat as a result of it.

WILLIAMS: Well, Ron Walters, you got two white candidates here and there in a southern state, Virginia. So can Webb take advantage of this, or is there the potential for Webb to experience a backlash from people who say that he is trying to exploit this? And how does the black community in Virginia relate and react to all this politically?

Prof. WALTERS: Well, a black community, obviously, is as opposed to the candidacy of George Allen. You talking about 17 percent of the population, which is not huge. So that they are not with it. But I think in any case, even whites in the state of Virginia don't want to be regarded to be outwardly racist. And so I think that's going to attract a very sizeable vote -particularly in northern Virginia - against this campaign.

A lot of people who are on the fence with George Allen are now going to cross that fence because they don't want to be associated publicly with these kind of comments and that kind of candidate.

WILLIAMS: Ron Walters is a professor of political science at the University of Maryland. His latest book, Freedom is Not Enough. And Joe Watkins, Reverend Watkins, is a member of the government relations firm Buchanan Ingersoll and Rooney and was a member of the first President Bush's White House staff. Gentlemen, thank you for joining us this week for Political Corner.

Rev. WATKINS: Thanks, Juan.

Prof. WALTERS: Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: Back to you, Farai.

CHIDEYA: Thanks, Juan. Join Juan Williams and his Washington insiders every Thursday right here on Political Corner.

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