The Claude Allen Story

What made Claude Allen, domestic policy advisor to President Bush and former deputy-sub-something-or-other at the Department of Health and Human Services (one of those departments that conservatives used to want to abolish), turn into a crook? A lengthy piece in the Washington Post yesterday ponders whether Allen snapped "after decades of operating outside the African American mainstream and often in concert with figures, like Helms, viewed as hostile to black interests." That's just one of several possibilities the piece moots, but since reporter Lynne Duke frames her story with an anecdote about Allen encountering racism in North Carolina, it's clearly the one readers are meant to credit. We're supposed to think that the cognitive dissonance of being a black man working for Jesse Helms and George W. Bush finally led Allen to turn to crime. Duke quotes a Virginia NAACP official named King Salim Khalafani to that effect — "The contradiction is going to manifest itself in some way in your behavior, your mental stability." — then endorses the idea herself: "It is just a theory, but one that stings."

Duke almost paints Allen as a victim — her interviews with Allen's acquaintances make him seem "enigmatic" (without ever giving any useful indication of what's supposed to be lurking beneath the surface) but even-keeled, generous, and likeable. After 20 years in politics, doesn't he have any enemies whose criticisms might shed a less flattering, less obfuscating light on this fraudster? Duke does cite critics, including Khalafani, who call him an ideologue, and she cites an instance of Allen essentially lying to Congress (when he tells a Senate confirmation panel that he left the Helms campaign after the senator filibustered the bill to make Martin Luther King Day a national holiday — in fact, as Duke reveals, Allen just took the day off). But she doesn't look deeper into what kind of political operative Allen was, instead choosing to play racial psychologist.

Let me suggest that there's a more natural explanation for Allen's behavior than the torque caused by being a black conservative: Allen turned into a crook precisely because he was an ideologue and a party stalwart. The same capacity that allows him to misrepresent his reaction to Helms's filibuster before Congress, and the same lack of scruple that makes a man effective in the Bush administration, is what allows someone like Allen to turn to petty crime. If the ends justify the means in politics, why not in retail fraud, too?

This is idle psychological speculation in its own right, of course, but it seems like a simpler and more elegant explanation than the one tendered by Duke and Khalafani, though it lacks all the titillating frisson of their racial explanation of Allen's behavior.

Outside the realm of speculation, though, one thing that can be said for certain is that Claude Allen should have listened to his mother. As Duke reveals:

Raised by Democrats, Allen shocked his mother, the late Lila Allen, when he told her back in 1982 that he was going to work for Republicans, according to Knight Ridder newspapers.

"Oh please, don't do that," she said. "You'll ruin your life."

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