Magazine | May 3, 2010, Issue

Colonel and Candidate

Col. Allen West (Darren Gygi)
Allen West makes waves in Florida, and elsewhere

There’s a congressional candidate in Florida whom a lot of Republicans are excited about. They have reason to be excited. The candidate is Col. Allen West, and he’s a true-blue Reaganite: a free marketeer, a hard-liner in foreign policy, an unapologetic social conservative. And he is not short on charisma. A video of one of his speeches “went viral” — attracted millions of viewers — and he was a star at CPAC — the Conservative Political Action Conference — in February. In this new technological age, congressional candidates can have national followings. West has one.

Moreover, for those who keep racial score — as people like to do — West is black. So are about 40 other Republicans running for Congress this year.

West is running in Florida’s 22nd District, which goes up the Atlantic coast from about Fort Lauderdale to about Jupiter. This is the “Gold Coast,” and it is very white and affluent. A Republican, Clay Shaw, represented the district for about 25 years. A Democrat, Ron Klein, won in what West calls the “Republican meltdown” of 2006.

West was the Republican nominee in 2008, with very little money and very little national support. A highly snarky article in The New Republic, “Recruiting Scandal,” presented him as a great embarrassment to the GOP. The embarrassment finished strongly: with 45 percent of the vote in a big Democratic, and terrible Republican, year. He thinks that, with some money and the support of the national party, he just might have won in ’08.

He has plenty of money and plenty of support this year. Fundraising has come easily, and the party has made him a priority. Formally, he is not yet the nominee, and there could be challengers. “One thing about me, I don’t believe in entitlement,” he says. “So if I have to prove myself, I’m more than willing to do that.” A primary race would be “a practice run before the big run.”

And what about a black man from inner-city Atlanta running on the Gold Coast? “Race is not a factor now,” says West. “People are looking for three things more than anything else: honor, integrity, and character. Dr. King spoke about the content of character rather than the color of skin. And we see right now that the Left is trying to use race as a means to suppress honest criticism of government.” He means, of course, that tea partiers and other Obama critics are broadly painted as racist.

The colonel and candidate was born in 1961, raised in the same neighborhood as King. West’s elementary school, Our Lady of Lourdes, was across the street from the Ebenezer Baptist Church. He was steeped in all things King — and he counts him as a personal hero today. West’s parents taught the values of God and country, individual responsibility and individual accountability. “You had to see yourself as not a victim but a victor.” They also taught the values of a free economy, inseparable from freedom and responsibility in general.

The young West liked to read history, study the Constitution, absorb the Federalist Papers — “I’m a bit of a geek.” He developed a special admiration for Lincoln and Churchill — and then for Ronald Reagan. “He projected strength, but a quiet strength, not a boisterous one.” There was also a string of military leaders, from Hannibal to Chesty Puller.

#page#Did he ever have a liberal phase or flirtation? “No. I saw social-welfare policies failing — just look at Detroit, just look at any other urban center — and a new kind of plantation. They once enslaved the body, and now they were enslaving the mind and the will.” He decries programs that lessen incentive and responsibility and “group you into a collective.” And he quotes the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who warned of social breakdown: “He said that if you took the father out of the black family, you’d collapse the black family — and that’s exactly what happened.”

West spent 22 years in the military, serving in the Gulf War, serving in the Iraq War, and earning a chestful of medals. In 2003, he was commanding a battalion in Iraq when a “career-ending incident,” as they say, occurred. In brief, West was interrogating an Iraqi who he believed was involved in an imminent plot to kill him and his men. He fired a couple of shots, scaring the man, who then sang.

West had departed from rules and regulations, and was hauled before a hearing. He said, “I know the method I used was not right, but I wanted to take care of my soldiers.” He also said, in a much-quoted line, “If it’s about the lives of my men and their safety, I’d go through hell with a gasoline can.” West could have been court-martialed, but was allowed to retire, paying a $5,000 fine.

Back home, he became a symbol: of military roguery to some liberals, of heroism and loyalty to many conservatives. FrontPage Magazine made him its man of the year, saying, “Col. West is the model leader, precisely the kind of man any soldier would want watching his back in combat.” Asked today whether he has any regrets about the “incident,” West says, “The thing is, every day of my life, I can look at myself in the mirror,” knowing he did his utmost to protect lives.

After the Army, West taught high school for a while — history. He is especially pleased that some of his students went on to service academies. Then he went to Afghanistan as a civilian adviser, training Afghan officers. He says he felt “a yearning in my heart” to do this. And then, politics called. West quotes Plato: “One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors.”

Does the colonel find anything to admire about our current president and commander-in-chief? “I struggle to find something to admire in him. I believe that his policies and vision are antithetical to who we are as a country. I think the two preeminent things he should be doing are protecting the fiscal security and protecting the physical security of the nation. And I think he’s failing at both.” West believes that the administration is making “more and more people dependent on government,” either as recipients of government checks or as government employees. And he is alarmed by what he sees as a refusal to face facts about the Islamist enemy: a refusal to speak of “Muslim extremism,” for example, or even of “terrorism.”

#page# “There are two things that could lose us our country if we’re not careful,” says West. One is the relinquishment of individual responsibility; the other is political correctness. He points to the case of Maj. Nidal Hasan, who murdered 13 people at Fort Hood, and who was not sidelined before that, despite his obvious Islamist predilections. “What can we say when political correctness has so seeped into our military that people are afraid to identify a problem situation because they don’t want to experience repercussions?” After Hasan’s massacre at Fort Hood, Army chief of staff George Casey said, “As horrific as this tragedy was, if our diversity becomes a casualty, I think that’s worse.” West finds this repulsive.

He has strong views about the Middle East (as on other regions and subjects), thinking that Obama has done very badly by Israel. “He seems more concerned that Jewish people are building houses than that the Iranian government is building a nuclear weapon.”

Some white liberals have suggested that West is not . . . you know, authentically black. “I’m not sure what they mean” when they say things like that, West responds. “I have to speak a certain way, act a certain way, think a certain way? I’m very confident in who I am. I know my history, where I come from. But if we try to box blacks into a certain stereotype that we’re comfortable with, that’s just as racist as anything else.” Besides, he says, “I can answer Soul Train trivia questions as well as anyone.”

Does he take grief from other blacks for his conservatism? “First of all, I don’t care. If people want to engage me in a philosophical discussion, I’m more than happy to do so. But name-calling — ‘Oreo,’ ‘Uncle Tom,’ ‘sell-out’: That makes me dig my heels in even harder. I’m my own, independent thinker. I don’t have to swim with the rest of the salmon.” What’s more, “Black people are the most conservative people in America — on Sunday. But Monday through Saturday, liberals are able to give them free stuff and turn them around.”

And what about this broad depiction of the tea-party movement as racist? West recalls Saul Alinsky’s “Rules for Radicals,” one of which is that you “pick a target, freeze it, personalize it,” etc. “The Left just wants to demonize the tea-party movement,” to rule it out of bounds. “They’re scared — the Left is scared. That’s all they’re showing.” West himself is a popular speaker at South Florida tea parties — “and I think they can see I’m black.”

He is a religious man, who attends a non-denominational Christian church. He neither smokes nor drinks: “My parents never did, so I never saw the need for it.” He is married to Angela, a financial planner, and they have two daughters. West is a long-distance runner, a master scuba diver, a motorcyclist. He is also a devotee of music. “On my way into the office this morning, I was listening to In the Steppes of Central Asia, by Alexander Borodin.” Did his military career take him to the steppes of Central Asia? Given Afghanistan, yes.

For many Republicans across the country, West is no less than a dream candidate. For many liberals, he is more like a nightmare: a completely self-confident, very well-versed black conservative. Far from an “embarrassment,” he may prove a major source of pride for the GOP this year — whether he wins or loses. 

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