Allen's roots

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I don't know what it is about these politicians, but when you get them off message it's as if they lose their ability to reason and speak. Take Sen. George Allen. Asked about his Jewish heritage (admittedly, in a debate setting, which was not the place to do it), all he could say was that it's important not to make "aspersions about people because of their religious beliefs." Unfortunately for Allen, no one was making aspersions. Is being Jewish (or the fact that your mother is Jewish) an aspersion? Hardly.

Then Allen decided to take another tack: humor. "I still had a ham sandwich at lunch," he told a local paper. "And my mother made great pork chops." Please.

So what's the problem here? This reminds me of another tongue-tied pol: Remember when former Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was asked in a debate what he would do to a man who raped his wife and he couldn't think of what to say–so he answered in policyspeak? Or when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright was told of her Jewish roots (and Sen. John Kerry, too), and they had to deal with it? It's tough when these things happen because they're not in the playbook. And the more we seem to demand authenticity from our candidates, the more they come prepackaged–unable to deal with unexpected personal news.

Sure, Allen was in a tight spot: He had already been accused of racial insensitivity because of his "macaca" comment, the term he used to describe an Indian-American aide to his opponent who had been following him. But if he were naturally able to handle his mother's Jewishness, he could have turned voters sympathetic: No one thinks it's easy to learn family secrets late in life. Instead, he just looked silly.