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A Tough Question for George Allen

All the attention in the Bolton hearings has focused on the "conscience caucus" of Voinovich, Chafee, Hagel and Murkowski, and on Lugar. But this is also a chance to see some other senators in action, like Norm Coleman of Minnesota and George Allen of Virginia, who has been identified by National Journal as the top pick for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination.

Neither one of these characters rises to even the middle tier of mediocrity, but there's something fascinating about Allen: He does not speak English. I mean that almost literally, in that he does not construct sentences made up of commonplace English words. Rather, he speaks entirely in a patois constructed of football metaphors. Absolutely everything is second down or third down, or five yards or ten yards or a Hail Mary. If you were unfamiliar with the basic jargon of American football (as many people are), his every word would be incomprehensible. His official photo on his web site has him holding a football. Try going through a day using a football (or baseball or basketball) metaphor for every conversation, and you get a sense of what it would be like to be George Allen.

Now I know that his father, who had the same name, was a football coach, best known for letting Richard Nixon call a play for the Redskins, and for a management philosophy called "The future is now," sort of a prototype for the Bush tax policy. I sort of assumed that the Senator played or coached in the NFL himself, but I got curious about it today. Did he? No. He played a little bit at UVA, apparently. (Of course, I worked for a guy who had a couple of championship rings and was in the Hall of Fame, and you were allowed maybe, at most, one glancing basketball reference in a speech, preferably none.)

In the course of looking this up, I came across an interview with Allen for nfl.com that includes a question from one Adam Schefter so merciless and piercing that that this guy deserves a spot in the White House press corps:

Schefter: Is there any family as distinguished as yours?

(I noticed late in writing this that Dana Millbank has already covered the Allen football-ese in February.)

Posted by Mark Schmitt on May 13, 2005 | Permalink


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Sounds like a character bad SNL skit. Or Foghorn Leghorn's best buddy, Rhode Island Red.

Posted by: Grant | May 13, 2005 10:54:14 AM

It's funny, too, that the metaphors are always fairly simplistic ones. The Milbank article claims that, "Aides occasionally roll their eyes at their boss's pigskin parlance, but they are powerless to block him." But it sounds to me like these are speeches his aides are writing for him.

He undoubtedly does pepper his off-the-record conversation with football metaphors as well, but the examples Milbank provides all smack of a non-player's scripting. They're pretty basic, for someone who played at the quarterback position in a respectable college program.

Maybe they're intentionally sort of "dumbed-down," if that's something you can do to a football metaphor, so that they're more accessible to non-experts, but they certainly don't reveal him to have been much of a student of the game.

No shocker, though, that.

Posted by: Kagro X | May 13, 2005 11:30:08 AM

I guess Allen 'broke formation' yesterday with his bold and daring 'tea drinker-pinky/milquetoast' comment, although it does sound like it could've come out of a locker room.

Posted by: jonnybutter | May 13, 2005 11:35:01 AM

Hey, that's the next POTUS you're talking about, Mark!

Posted by: praktike | May 13, 2005 11:37:07 AM

Thanks again, Virginia.

It wasn't enough you had him for yourself as Governor, you had to let him loose on the rest of America.

Posted by: EG | May 13, 2005 4:53:50 PM

Relax, EG. He's as dumb as a bag of rocks, and I expect America to pick up on that.

As Billmon says, what kind of Senator do you have to be to "make people refer to John Warner as 'the smart one'"?

Posted by: Nell | May 13, 2005 5:42:11 PM

Y'know, I never really noticed that, and I'm a lifelong Virginian. Perhaps it's because I love football too, but that's where our similarities end. Don't worry America: it's true, he has more ambition than brains. He's basically all slick marketing and very little substance, sticks to the talking points...damn, I just described the current President!

Well, forget it - we're all doomed.

Posted by: Ben | May 13, 2005 6:34:39 PM

c'mon sometimes he talks about Mr. Peepers.

Posted by: stress | May 13, 2005 9:52:52 PM

Wonder if he still chews terbacky (http://www.nndb.com/people/185/000032089/)?

Posted by: Borden Tarde | May 13, 2005 10:39:22 PM

My feeling, listening to Allen, is that he is deliberately casting himself as the heir to George W.- an inarticulate, tongue-tied simpleton whose butchered English appeals to the Republican anti-intellectualism.

Posted by: Bob H | May 14, 2005 8:34:44 AM

If Allen wins, will Lakoff drop his strict father vs. nurturant marsupial thing and switch to football vs. soccer?

Posted by: Ethical Werewolf | May 14, 2005 12:26:47 PM

No need to punt yet. It's only first down. We are still in the first quarter. Plenty of time to come back. Oy.

Posted by: The Heretik | May 15, 2005 12:49:08 PM

I agree with EW; we "misunderestimate" him at our own peril. Americans like plain and simple messages, delivered with conviction. It's not such a bad thing - we liberals shouldn't get tongue-tied trying to convey our points. Plus, Allen is A LOT smarter than Dubya. I know that's not saying much, but we've seen what Dubya's done with very little in the way of experience or intelligence; meanwhile, Allen has been Governor AND Senator - imagine what damage he could do.

All that said, I think it's ridiculously early to prognosticate about potential nominees (for either party) in 2008. All of us would be better served focusing on our local/state/national contests in 2006. (FYI, Virginia's gubernatorial election is coming up!)

Posted by: Ben | May 15, 2005 7:14:21 PM


GORE: I'd like to start by offering you a deal, Jack. If you won't use any football stories, I won't tell any of my warm and humorous stories about chlorofluorocarbon abatement.

Posted by: John M. | May 15, 2005 11:10:16 PM

Schefter: Who wins the presidential election in 2008?

Allen: It will be wide open -- I don't know. But here's another thing from my father. Pay attention to the task at hand. I'm chairman of the Republican Senatorial Committee so I'm worrying about all the Senate races we have. I want to strengthen our Republican majority. There are five open seats where the Democrats have retired, and they're exactly the NFC South states. That is the task at hand. We need to come out of the NFC South with a strong winning record.

Posted by: voxel.net | May 16, 2005 4:54:35 AM

Allen-Hayworth 2008

Go for the extra point!

Posted by: Kosh | May 16, 2005 3:36:39 PM

"Relax, EG. He's as dumb as a bag of rocks, and I expect America to pick up on that."

I remember saying something like that myself once, about somebody else-I think it was back in March 2000 . . .

Posted by: rea | May 17, 2005 6:22:15 PM

At every opportunity, Allen should be asked "What down is it?" so his brain will churn away in an endless search for metaphorical resolution

Posted by: David | May 18, 2005 12:25:34 AM

Point taken, rea. I had those same thoughts...

Of course, America as a whole did pick up on it, but a little Floridation and not-to-be-used-as-precedent "results-oriented" jurisprudence and: voila. A lying, out-of-his-depth bag of rocks for President.

Posted by: Nell | May 18, 2005 1:13:50 PM

Allen's father was, IMO, one of the most unscrupulous and generally sleazy (and overrated) coaches in NFL history. For those of you who follow football, George Allan, Sr., was well known for trading draft picks he didn't have to unsuspecting teams and for a paranoid fear of the other teams spying on his practices (although that's not that uncommon in the NFL). His daughter wrote a book that, as I understand it, pretty much talked about what it was like growing up with a lunatic for a father. (One of George, Sr.'s favorite quotes was "Losing is like death.") He is a hero here in Washington because he won a lot of games, but his son is a chip off the old block.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | May 18, 2005 1:30:56 PM

Thanks, Marc, for reminding me of that book by George Allen Sr.'s daughter, the Senator's sister. I vaguely remember hearing about it when it came out. The "Look Inside the Book" excerpt on Amazon is very long, so I just read some of it: http://www.amazon.com/exec/obidos/ASIN/0679452028/ref=sib_rdr_dp/104-2245606-0616761

Total Great Santini stuff. Makes his kids watch a movie about his second season as the Rams' coach over and over again, never comes home, etc.

I sometimes think politicians split into those with father issues -- living up to exaggerated ideals -- and mother issues. GW Bush, Al Gore and Allen all have or had father issues. Clinton, Nixon, had mother issues.

Posted by: Mark Schmitt | May 18, 2005 1:55:56 PM

We lived in the same suburb of Charlottesville as Allen. Yes, he's packaged himself as the gold 'ol boy (pointed boots, shotgun, chewing tobacco). The packaging of our political leaders and aspirants gets more and more professional. But when does the package become the man? Do we really want a guy who looks at complex technical or social issues through the lens of a quarterback who'd rather chug one down rather than a servant of the people working his or her senses, intellect and reasoning for the the greater good?

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