The Macaca Heard Round the World

No politician, let alone a rising star and presidential hopeful, wants to spend his time insisting that he's not a racist.

But this afternoon, Senator George Allen, R-VA -- running for re-election and entertaining presidential hopes for 2008 -- sat among 20 or so Indian Americans in a conference room at the Ritz Carlton in Tyson's Corner, VA, to show that he's not.

"It was a mistake, it was wrong, and it was hurtful to people," Allen said of remarks he'd made that the Indian Americans -- and other critics -- found racially offensive.

What he was referring to all started Friday in a southwestern corner of Virginia.

Speaking to supporters in a town called Breaks, Allen spotted a Democratic volunteer for his opponent's campaign.

He said to his audience: "This fellow here, over here with the yellow shirt. Macaca or whatever his name is. He's with my opponent, he's following us around everywhere."

The fellow was an Indian-American named S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer with the Senate campaign of Allen's Democratic opponent, former Secretary of the Navy James Webb. Sidarth had been carrying a DV camera hoping to catch Allen in a gaffe. It worked.

Allen continued: "So welcome, let's give a welcome to Macaca here. Welcome to America, and the real world of Virginia."

Sidarth later told ABC News that his first reaction was to be shocked, that he "couldn't believe that it happened initially, and then the second reaction was sort of 'What? I can't believe that he is using race in the political area.'"

'Clumsy, Stupid Gaffe'

The political world exploded. Chris Matthews of MSNBC's Hardball asked: "Is George Allen committing suicide?" Even Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review -- who wrote a glowing front-page profile of Allen -- said the episode "showed that Allen has a mean streak that showed here."

The incident also has raised questions about Allen's readiness for the 2008 campaign. University of Virginia political commentator Larry J. Sabato said, "It was a clumsy stupid gaffe, just an amazing thing for a supposedly veteran politician to do." Especially since Allen was quite obviously being filmed at the time.

Allen insists that when he said "Welcome to America" it was not meant as a xenophobic slam. He was aiming at his Democratic opponent, not Sidarth, saying the candidate doesn't know Virginia.

In his taped comments, after all, Allen had preceded his "welcome to America" comments by saying, "We're going to places all over Virginia and he's having it on film and you show it to your opponent because he's never been there and probably will never come so it's good for you. The real world. Rather than inside the beltway."

But that has been lost among the media frenzy, which has largely focused on that weird word "macaca," which Allen tried to explain today.

"Some of our staff folks was calling him 'mohawk' and at any rate I didn't know what him name was, I didn't know what 'macaca' means," Allen said.

Sidarth said he thought Allen's comments were pejorative. "Having visited Spain, it has the same sort of context of referring to monkeys which is used derogatorily with immigrants in all parts of Europe."

Macaca, Monkey

However, the media and the internet are abuzz with other theories.

Rob Corddry, a correspondent on "The Daily Show with Jon Stewart," said: "I don't know what 'macaca' means, but it sure as (beep) sounds racist."

"Here in Virginia, I'm still not sure if that helps or hurts a guy," he added.

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