Authenticity

AUTHENTICITY….Ryan Lizza’s profile of presidential hopeful George Allen is mostly notable for its evidence of Allen’s youthful Confederate sympathies, but there’s a subtext to the whole thing that might be even more important. Here is George Allen, man of the people, in action at a political shindig in Virginia:

As the scrum breaks up, Allen turns away and spits a long brown streak of saliva into the dirt, just missing one of his constituents, a carefully put-together, blonde, ponytailed woman approaching the senator for an autograph. She stops in her tracks and stares with disgust at the bubbly tobacco juice that almost landed on her feet. Without missing a beat, Allen’s communications director, John Reid, reassures her: “That’s just authenticity!” It’s a word they use a lot it the Allen world ? “authenticity.”

The press corps is a sucker for “authenticity,” and it’s something that both George Bush and John McCain have cleverly exploited ? because for most reporters, speaking in complete sentences or having smart ideas about policy are way less important than being a “straight talker” or “comfortable in your own skin.” But just as McCain’s embrace of Jerry Falwell has shown him to be a wee bit less of a straight talker than his handlers claim, Allen’s “authenticity” also turns out to be barely skin deep. See, Allen didn’t grow up in the South at all. He grew up in Chicago and California:

In Palos Verdes, an exclusive cliffside community, he lived in a palatial home with sweeping views of downtown Los Angeles and the Santa Monica basin. It had handmade Italian tiles and staircases that his eccentric mother, Etty, designed to match those in the Louvre. “It looks like a French ch?teau,” says Linda Hurt Germany, a high school classmate.

….While there, [Allen] became obsessed with the supposed authenticity of rural life ? or at least what he imagined it to be from episodes of “Hee Haw,” his favorite TV show, or family vacations in Mexico, where he rode horses. Perhaps because of his peripatetic childhood, the South’s deeply rooted culture attracted him….Whatever it was, Allen got his first pair of those now-iconic cowboy boots from one of his father’s players on the Rams who received them as a promotional freebie. He also learned to dip from his dad’s players. At school, he started to wear an Australian bush hat, complete with a dangling chin strap and the left brim snapped up. He wore the hat for a yearbook photo of the falconry club. His favorite record was Johnny Cash’s At Folsom Prison.

Ed Kilgore explains why we should care about this, even though it’s long in the past:

As a native southerner, I find this weird and a bit troubling. Personally, I have all sorts of issues with the Confederate Flag and the whole self-destructive cult of the Lost Cause. But I do understand its appeal to people who have grown up saturated in southern culture; I may sometimes consider them SOBs, but they are my SOBs. The idea of young, incredibly privileged, golden-boy-quarterback George Allen of California choosing to embrace southern shibboleths at the precise moment, in the late 1960s, when they were most associated with atavistic racial attitudes, bothers me a lot.

Allen may reasonably claim that what he did as a teenager four decades ago shouldn’t be held against him now. But the consistent evidence in Lizza’s piece that Allen’s red state good ‘ol boy schtick is little more than a personal invention, carefully cultivated and maintained through the years, should at least give the press corps pause as they cover his campaign. They’ve gotten suckered by this act before, and both McCain and Allen are currently gearing up to sucker them again with the same song in a different key. Caveat emptor should be their watch phrase this time around.