The following is updated from this August 2016 post, including what Jim Webb and George Allen have been up to since 2006, at the end of this piece.
Yes, it really was 14 years ago yesterday that one of the weirdest incidents in Virginia political history took place — then Senator George Allen (R) calling the Jim Webb (D) campaign’s Indian-American “tracker,” S.R. Sidarth, a weird word – and as it turned out, a racist – namely “macaca.” Note that the story broke on Ben Tribbett’s blog, “Not Larry Sabato,” two days later, on August 13, 2006 (and finally on the Washington Post, which initially wasn’t sure it was really a story – duh!!! – on August 14). As I wrote at the time:
“Kudos to Ben Tribbett for (possibly) bringing down a leading right-wing Presidential candidate, and for (possibly) derailing his re-election bid to the U.S. Senate. Also, kudos to Sidarth for staying cool under pressure and getting this video. Great work!]”
In thinking back to mid-August 2006, one thing that strikes me is how it’s almost like ancient history in some ways, even though it’s only been 14 years. For instance, in August 2006, there was: no Twitter (actually, it was launched in July 2006, but it didn’t really get going until 2007, 2008 and beyond); no Facebook (other than for college students — “On September 26, 2006, Facebook was opened to everyone at least 13 years old with a valid email address.” ); and a relatively new YouTube (“the site launched officially on December 15, 2005, by which time the site was receiving 8 million views a day” — today it gets BILLIONS of views per day).
So how did we talk about politics back then? For one thing, kinda slowly…dialup, VERY slow video uploads, etc. Second, this weird little thing called a “political blog” was a big part of it, and there were a bunch of them – progressive, conservative, centrist, etc. – in Virginia. We also used Yahoo Groups and Google Groups (does anyone use those anymore?). So when the “macaca” video went live on YouTube and ultimately “went viral,” it was one of the first – if not THE first – YouTube video to make a significant difference in a major political race.
Another thing that strikes me about the 14-year anniversary of “macaca” is how quaint – almost – it seems today. Compare the firestorm over George Allen’s use of that word then, with the almost constant barrage of racist, violent, crazy and other vile rhetoric from Donald Trump – the PRESIDENT, for god’s sake! – and many other Republicans these days. Could there even *be* a “macaca moment” today?
Has ten years of cable “boob tube” “news” done this to us? Ten years of the dregs of social media, in which anyone and everyone can be a “publisher” with no “gatekeepers,” meaning that Facebook, Twitter, newspaper comments sections, etc. are basically cesspools for the most deranged among us to spread lies, nastiness, personal attacks, conspiracy theories and lots, lots more? I remember the early days of social media, and specifically the great optimism about how this would help strengthen democracy in many ways, elevate the public dialogue, make everyone a “citizen journalist,” you name it. What ever happened to those cyberutopian promises? Again, things have gotten really bad when a U.S. Senator pointing his finger at a young Indian-American man and calling him a racist word seems almost quaint by comparison to what goes on today…including from the White House itself.
By the way, for the detailed backstory of the entire “macaca” incident, as well as what led up to it (the “draft,” the Webb campaign) and what followed it (Webb’s victory over “Felix”), see the book I coauthored with Nate Wilcox, Netroots Rising. One quick point, though: it wasn’t just “macaca” that deep-sixed George Allen, as some people seem to believe. To the contrary, it was Jim Webb’s 12,000-strong “ragtag army” of volunteers; a lot more mistakes by George Allen than just “macaca;” the plummeting popularity of President Bush due to Iraq and the Hurricane Katrina debacle/disaster; a major investment by the DSCC in Webb’s campaign in the closing weeks of the campaign; smart strategy by the Webb campaign; a changing Virginia (in the “blue” direction); and much more.
Anyway, it’s amazing that 14 years have gone by since all that. So what’s happened to Jim Webb and George Allen since 2006? In short…
Webb (74 years old): As we know, he served for six years in the U.S. Senate, in which time he delivered the Democratic response to the President’s State of the Union address, helped open up U.S. relations with Burma/Myanmar, worked on criminal justice reform, and voted about 91.8% of the time with Democrats. Webb then announced in February 2011 that he wouldn’t be seeking reelection to the U.S. Senate, with Tim Kaine defeating our old pal George Allen in the race to succeed Webb. Also, for a few months in 2015, Webb was a Democratic candidate for president, but he failed to make any particular inroads, so he quit the race in October 2015. In January 2019, Webb was rumored, briefly, as a possible Defense Secretary in the Trump administration, but that didn’t end up happening. Other than that, Webb’s post-U.S. Senate career has been disappointing and even infuriating, with Webb going to work as a “national co-chairman for Explore Offshore USA, a project of the American Petroleum Institute,” pushing for offshore oil drilling. Yuck. Worst of all, Webb apparently supported/voted for Donald Trump, actually publishing an article on January 17, 2017 (while many of us were busy getting ready to march by the millions against Trump!) called “The Promise of Donald Trump,” in which Webb laughably claimed that Trump “is positioned to bring two much-needed adjustments to our governing process.” How much of this is Webb’s bitterness that his own presidential ambitions went nowhere in the Democratic Party vs. some other motivation? Hard to say, but regardless of the reasoning, it’s inexcusable.
Allen (68 years old): Other than losing twice – first to Webb in 2006, then to Kaine in 2012 – Allen has been a lobbyist; started the American Energy Freedom Center, a non-profit conservative think tank that is a project of the Institute for Energy Research” (see here for more information on this godawful group, including its climate science denial, promotion of fossil fuels and attacks on clean energy); authored “What Washington Can Learn From the World of Sports” (sounds fascinating, eh? LOL); and “now serves on the Reagan Ranch Board of Governors of Young America’s Foundation, where he is a Reagan Ranch Presidential Scholar.” Allen has also shared his profound thoughts (haha, not!) on the R**skins ditching their name and logo (he thinks it’s ridiculous, basically, but it’s the owner’s right to do so…he also says he likes “Redtails” as a replacement, and hopes they “keep the song”), on Confederate monuments (basically, don’t tear them down and don’t give in to “mob rule”), and on players kneeling during the National Anthem supposedly being “disrespectful” and supposedly “losing [the NFL] fans.” Finally, I’ll give Allen credit for coming to terms with his Jewish heritage (e.g., see this article, in which “Allen, addressing Chabad Lubavitch’s National Jewish Retreat in August, said he believed denying his Jewish past helped cost him re-election”) and also to an extent with his use of the racist word “macaca” (see here: “during my last campaign, I never should have singled out that young man working for my opponent, calling him a name. He was just doing his job. I was wrong to do that to him, and it diverted our campaign away from the real issues that families care about.”). On the other hand, he hasn’t changed his conservative Republican stripes – holding a fundraiser in 2016 with Barbara Comstock (she lost), endorsing right winger Vinson Palathingal for Fairfax County School Board in 2019 (he lost), etc. [UPDATE: Also, George Allen “evolve[d] – in a big way – on gay marriage,” as Allen, “once a vocal gay-rights foe, was among those applauding…as the Supreme Court affirmed the right of same-sex couples to marry.”]