Defending Allen's “macaca” remarks, Blankley claimed: “In Italian ... it means a clown”

On Hardball, The Washington Times' Tony Blankley stated that the word “macaca,” "[i]n Italian, I'm told, it means a clown." The term was twice used by Sen. George Allen to refer to S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer with the campaign of Allen's Democratic Senate challenger Jim Webb.

On the August 23 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews, Washington Times editorial page editor Tony Blankley stated that "[i]n Italian, I'm told," the word “macaca” -- twice used by Sen. George F. Allen (R-VA) in singling out S.R. Sidarth, a volunteer with the campaign of Allen's Democratic Senate challenger Jim Webb -- “means a clown.” But, among Allen's numerous statements and explanations his campaign has offered during the ensuing controversy, " 'macaca' means 'clown' in Italian" was not one of them.

The Washington Post reported on August 15 that the word “macaca” is used “in some European cultures” as “a racial slur against African immigrants, according to several Web sites that track ethnic slurs.” Sidarth was reportedly born and raised in Virginia and is of Indian descent.

During a conversation with host Chris Matthews and Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson on Hardball, Blankley stated that Allen's “mother was Italian and Tunisian,” and that "[i]n Italian, I'm told [“macaca”] means a clown." As Media Matters for America previously noted, according to an August 16 article, Allen's mother was born to a “French-Italian” father and raised in Tunisia, a former French colony in North Africa. The article noted that the word “macaca” “eventually became a racist shorthand for blacks,” derived from a Bantu word meaning “monkey.”

Blankley's assertions echo those of a Washington Times reader quoted by columnist John McCaslin in his August 21 Washington Times “Inside the Beltway” column. According to McCaslin, “Joseph Luchi, a translator who lives in New York City” and claims to be “fluent in Italian and of Italian descent,” wrote to McCaslin claiming that "[m]y mom used this word [macaca] about myself and my sister many times. It means 'fool, clown, dummy.' " Luchi's letter continued: “It is quite possible that the senator heard this word from his mom when he was misbehaving. ... My mom used this word to chastise us when we were not doing the right thing. Many Italian mothers that I was around used this word.” Allen's use of the term “macaca” was, according to Luchi as reported by McCaslin, “not flattering, but it did not mean 'monkey,' but in the vernacular ... 'dummy, clown.' And I can hear my mom now calling that [Democratic campaign] kid a 'macaca' (clown) for running around with a camera and following the senator around Virginia with that silly haircut.”

Notwithstanding the purported “vernacular” use of “macaca” by those of Italian descent, Allen and his campaign have not claimed -- as Blankley did -- that Allen meant to refer to Sidarth as “a clown.” As Media Matters noted when conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh claimed that “macaca” was merely a “Spanish” word meaning “clown,” Allen has not invoked this defense for his remarks. Rather, he and his campaign staff have made the following series of statements attempting to explain Allen's remarks and to defuse the controversy surrounding them:

  • Allen did not know what “macaca” means, and his use of the term was really intended as a play on the word "'mohawk,' a term that his campaign staff had nicknamed Sidarth because of his haircut," which Sidarth characterizes as “a mullet -- tight on top, long in the back.” Allen said he "'would never want to demean him [Sidarth] as an individual. I do apologize if he's offended by that. That was no way the point." [The Washington Post; 8/15/06]
  • From Allen's statement provided to CNN: "[M]y comments at Breaks Interstate Park on August 11th have been greatly misunderstood by members of the media. I ... made up a nickname for the cameraman [Sidarth], which was in no way intended to be racially derogatory. Any insinuations to the contrary are completely false." [National Journal's The Hotline weblog; 8/15/06]
  • Allen was calling Sidarth a “mash-up” of terms that amounted to “shit-head.” "[T]wo Republicans who heard the word used" claimed “macaca” was a combination of " '[m]ohawk,' referring to Sidarth's distinctive hair, and 'caca,' Spanish slang for excrement, or 'shit.' " [The Hotline; 8/16/06]
  • “For folks to think that I would know what sorts of genus of monkeys are in Eastern Asia -- ascribe a lot more intelligence to me than I actually have.” [ABC's Nightline; 8/16/06]
  • From an August 19 memo Allen campaign manager Dick Wadhams sent to Republican leaders and the Allen campaign leadership: "[T]he news media created what they call a 'feeding frenzy' ... [l]iterally putting words into Senator Allen's mouth that he did not say (by speculating, defining and attributing meanings and motives that simply are not true). ... [T]he Webb campaign and the news media seeming [sic] worked hand-in-hand to create national news over something that did not warrant coverage in the first place. ... Will the Washington Post hold it's [sic] candidate for the U.S. Senate [Webb] to the same standard?" [Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee; 8/19/06]
  • From Allen's August 22 appearance on ABC Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show: “I take full responsibility. I'm not offering any excuses because I said it [macaca], and no one else said it ... It's a mistake. I apologize, and from my heart, I'm very, very sorry for it.” [The Washington Post; 8/24/06]
  • Allen “realized how much he offended [Sidarth] from the comments [Sidarth] made in the media,” telling Sidarth he is “sorry he offended” him, and that his apology was “from his heart.” [The Washington Post; 8/24/06]
  • From Wadhams' interview: “It's great to have the president [Bush] in Virginia, raising substantial amounts of money so we can fight off the scurrilous attacks by our opponent [Webb] and his leftist allies. ... I think the [August 19] memo [blaming the media for ”putting words into Senator Allen's mouth"] speaks for itself." [The Washington Post; 8/24/06]
  • “Allen said he made the name up, then said he recalled that he had a niece nicknamed 'Maca Maca.' ” [Los Angeles Times; 8/24/06]

From the August 23 edition of MSNBC's Hardball with Chris Matthews:

MATTHEWS: I was just looking at how long -- and somebody put this together, this Webb for Senate campaign -- put this together. He said it on the 11th of August -- it's the 23rd now -- he said it and then he said “macaca” was a variation of “mohawk,” which didn't sell, and then he said it was really -- it was really just made up, and then he said he didn't have to apologize for it; then it had something to do with, like, "Scheisskopf," anybody who wants to interpret that -- it was really one of those terms. He's had so many explanations for this thing, and he also says, “I call my niece Macac -- Maca Maca,” and then finally, today, having yet to explain what the word is, he says, “I apologize for calling you a word, I don't know what it means.”

ROBINSON: Does he know what the word -- I don't think he -- I'm willing to concede that he doesn't know what the word is. I think the problem is --

MATTHEWS: No, he knew what it meant.

ROBINSON: -- he dismissed, you know, the entire Indian subcontinent as “macaca.” He's just a “macaca.”

MATTHEWS: I know -- the funny thing is that they're -- I know for a fact, studying politics and living in Washington, there were 10,000 people of South Asian descent, recent South Asian descent, just in the high-tech industry over here in Herndon [Virginia], and then the -- I don't know how many people are -- they're all voters and smart people and they're listening to this.

BLANKLEY: Look, Chris, you know the politicians, it's very hard to get them to say, “I was wrong.” I mean, whether it was my old boss Reagan or --

MATTHEWS: I just want them to say what they said.

BLANKLEY: But the thing -- but the point is, the easy and obvious solution is to get out there right away and say, “If I offended anyone, I'm deeply apologetic. I didn't mean it. I'm terribly sorry,” and that sort of ends the story, but by trying to define it away, he's turned it into --

MATTHEWS: So, you wouldn't fall for “Hakuna Matata” from The Lion King, would you?

BLANKLEY: I don't know what the truth is, but -- but as to his motivation --

MATTHEWS: You are being so kind. Would you be this kind to a Democrat?

BLANKLEY: In Italian -- in Italian, I'm told, it means a clown.

MATTHEWS: Oh, really?

BLANKLEY: And his mother was Italian-Tunisian.

MATTHEWS: And in Spanish, it means crap, of course.