The New Burns and Allen Comedy Show: Why Voters Should Throw Out the Montana and Virginia Senators Today

By CARL TOBIAS

Tuesday, Nov. 07, 2006

A new Burns and Allen comedy act has entered the world stage, thanks to modern technology. But this is not your parents' comedy routine, with the cigar-smoking funnyman George Burns and Gracie Allen, his understated but equally hilarious foil.

No, the new act is a thoroughly premodern routine brought to global viewers and to a computer screen near you by another dynamic duo, live and direct from the U.S. Senate: Montana Senator Conrad Burns and Virginia Senator George Allen. The Senators' bad behavior, while in office, provides very good reason for voters to oust them this Election Day.

Competence Issues Persist for Both Candidates

Burns, a hayseed from Missouri, has represented Montana since his debut as a radio agriculture reporter. Although Burns has served in the Senate for 18 years, he has yet to grasp what a senator does.

Allen, the son of a famous professional football coach from Southern California, went native, in his adopted state of Virginia, through a transformation from Beach Boy to good old boy. Allen has not yet completed a single Senate term, but is seriously considering a run for president -- because he is bored by the "world's greatest deliberative body," which Allen finds moves at "the pace of a wounded sea slug."

The Candidates' Insensitivity Toward Members of Minority Groups Is Offensive

The duo puts on a first-class (if unintentional) comedy act, with the senators vying to outdo each other's routines.

For example, just this summer, Burns joked to a public gathering about how a "nice little Guatemalan man" named Hugo, who was repairing Burns's home, might be an illegal immigrant, because Hugo said no when Burns asked for his green card. The next week, after watching a television interview on illegal immigrants who seek Virginia employment, Burns said: "I told my roofer, you better go out and get your help, or you won't get my house roofed."

These incidents build on Burns's history of characterizing Arabs as "ragheads" and on his famous remark, in a discussion with constituents, agreeing that it was indeed a "trial" being in Washington, D.C. with so many African Americans. Burns also recently decried "faceless [terrorists, who] drive taxicabs in the daytime and kill at night."

Not to be outdone, Allen -- in what proved to be the definining moment of his campaign -- singled out his opponent's campaign worker, who was videotaping an Allen campaign event, before an all-white crowd in Southwest Virginia. Allen called the worker, S.R. Sidarth, "macaca," and bid him welcome to "America and the real world of Virginia."

"Macaca" is a genus of monkeys but is widely considered a racial slur. Sidarth, a Northern Virginia native, is of Indian descent and attends the University of Virginia.

When the media first asked Allen for an explanation, the senator replied that he did not know what the term "macaca" meant. When pressed, Allen said "macaca" was a nickname given Sidarth because of his "Mohawk" haircut.

Allen's campaign manager then lambasted the media for creating a "feeding frenzy," praised President George W. Bush's fundraising efforts "so we can fight off the scurrilous attacks by our opponent and his leftist allies," and provided several lame explanations for Allen's use of "macaca." After none of this proved effective, Allen issued dozens of apologies, which culminated in a personal apology to Mr. Sidarth.

When a reporter later asked Allen whether his ancestors were Jewish, Allen angrily castigated the reporter. Several days later, Allen, who has courted the Christian conservative vote throughout his political career, formulated a ham-handed response: He explained that he had devoured a ham sandwich for lunch (and thus, presumably, could not be an observant Jew). Allen's campaign manager then attacked Allen's opponent, Jim Webb, as anti-semitic.

Burns's and Allen's insensitivity toward minorities, deeply objectionable in itself, also makes them unable to represent the persons of color among their constituents.

Issues of Competence, Representativeness, and Racial Insensitivity Make the Choice Clear

Getting rid of Burns and Allen should not be controversial. Their lack of qualifications, and their attitudes toward their offices, make their service dubious. And their racial insensitivity makes them unfit to govern - not just because it's a moral defect, which it surely is, but also for pragmatic policy reasons.

Much of the United States' strength derives from its racial, ethnic and religious diversity, and the respect of most Americans for that diversity. It's not only the right thing to do, but it's also in our best interest, to make sure our leaders sincerely respect people of other races, ethnicities, cultures, and religions - especially now, in a time of global terrorism when the U.S. urgently needs allies. Burns and Allen plainly do not.

Voters can end these comedic, but pathetic, moments today.


Carl Tobias, the Williams Professor at the University of Richmond School of Law, taught at the University of Montana for two decades.

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