Aug. 16, 2006 — -- 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.'"
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."
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.
Much media speculation has surrounded whether the term has meaning in North Africa. Allen's mother was Franco-Tunisian and spoke French, as reportedly did Allen and his siblings.
At least one expert on Tunisian history who spoke to ABC News says that "macaca" was a derogatory term used by French colonists in Tunisia to describe the indigenous Africans centuries ago, though neither an employee of the Tunisian Embassy to the U.S. nor a former ambassador to Tunisia had ever heard the term "macaca" before.
Allen insisted today that "it's an absolutely meaningless word to me, and for folks to think I would know the genus of monkey are in eastern Asia, ascribe a lot more intelligence to me then I actually have," he said.
Reached at a campaign event in Arlington, VA, Webb said he doesn't buy Allen's explanation though he largely held his fire.
When asked, Webb responded: "George Allen knew what he was saying and he's the one you need to talk to about why he said it."
Republicans argue there's a double-standard -- that the media didn't seem to care when Democratic Senator Joe Biden, also a 2008 hopeful also offended Indian Americans.
"You cannot go to a 7-eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking," Biden said.
Nor did the media seem to make a big deal, conservatives say, when Webb's campaign -- running against a Jewish candidate in the primary -- used imagery in a flier that some found anti-Semitic.
However, Sabato argues that Allen is a special case. "He has had a whole series of events in his personal and political life that have caused reasonable people to question whether he is sensitive to racial issues," he said.
In May, the liberal New Republic magazine highlighted what it called Allen's "race problem" -- including an affinity for the confederate flag Allen had as far back as his time as a high school student in California. As a Virginia state legislator, Allen led the charge against a Martin Luther King day holiday. And as governor he issued a proclamation honoring the confederacy with nary a mention of slavery.
When asked by ABC News about the "macaca" brouhaha being part of a supposed larger history of racial insensitvity, Allen said, "I don't see how this has anything to do with any of that."
Today, even Allen's conservative supporters have begun to raise questions. Webb is so vastly underfunded he remains a longshot candidate to defeat Allen, but Allen felt the compelling need to run damage control, not necessarily because of 2006 -- but perhaps 2008.
"I don't think there's any chance this will hurt Allen in this re-election race, at least not enough to cost him the election," Sabato said. "But the presidency is another matter entirely. There are very few people left in either party who want to nominate somebody who has a history of racial insensitivity."
And even those who appeared with Allen when he made his mea culpa appeared to send this message.
Allen thanked his Indian American guests for coming -- Shurkiyah," he said, using the Hindi word for "thank you," a moment of multicultural contrition indicating how serious he is about putting this behind him --before running off for a campaign event in Norfolk. But Sanjay Puri, the head of an Indian American political action committee, the only attendee Allen's campaign allowed ABC News to talk to, said he didn't know if he would vote for Allen.
This was far from the end of things, Puri said. "I think that this is the beginning and I believe that was what was clearly told to Senator Allen," he said. "We expect a lot better from our leaders. Definitely a lot better from our leaders."
In Norfolk, Allen appeared with Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., at an event aimed at veterans. The Virginian was no doubt happy for a change of subject. But it's entirely possible that in two years, in the throes of the GOP primaries, it may be McCain questioning just what his colleague meant when he used the word "macaca."
Katie Hinman and Teddy Davis contributed to this report