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Allen's Arena

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Here's a riddle:

What do jurists in England, economic development directors in Indiana and the Carolinas, social service workers in Appalachia, road-builders in Texas, teachers and principals in Maine and Wisconsin, procurement managers in Georgia, budget officers in Oklahoma and legal reformers in China all have in common?

The answer: George Allen.

People in these and many other far-flung places have implemented policies for which the sweeping reforms enacted during Allen's Virginia governorship have served as a model or pacesetter.

The list of landmark measures enacted during Allen's term, from 1994 to 1998, is breathtaking: parole abolition; juvenile justice reform; education standards, assessments and accountability; economic development restructuring and incentives; public-private partnerships; welfare reform; parental notification; performance budgeting; and regulatory reform -- to name just a few.

Any one of them could rightly be trumpeted as proof of an unusually productive governorship.

Anyone would represent an impressive legacy, having survived three gubernatorial successors and a decade of change. That Allen tackled them all and delivered on them all — with a legislature controlled by the opposing party — is truly remarkable.

Even more striking is the extent to which those measures have been used as a blueprint by subsequent reformers across the United States and around the world in the ensuing decade.

But for Allen, only two measures of his public service ever really mattered: Did he keep his promises to the people of Virginia? And did he make a real, practical, positive impact on people's lives? An amazingly diverse group of observers across the political spectrum has rendered an affirmative verdict on both counts.

Some politicians breeze in and out of public office leaving hardly a trace. They crave popularity more than achievement … the fleeting affections of an easily impressed public more than the considered judgment of history … an applause-fed boost to their self-esteem more than the satisfaction of knowing they used the uncommon gift of public office to improve people's lives.

Synthetic and narcissistic, they parrot poll-tested phrases and cling desperately to power, not to render some benefit to others, but to satisfy selfish ambitions.

Deep down, they are superficial.

But not George Allen.

The former governor and U.S. senator incessantly invokes Jefferson, and he uncannily resembles Reagan. But the presidential quote that leaps to mind is Teddy Roosevelt's. Roosevelt spoke of the "man … in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs and comes up short again and again, because there is no effort without error or shortcoming, but who does actually strive to do the deeds, who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions, who spends himself in a worthy cause; who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who, at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who knew neither victory nor defeat."

That's the Gov. Allen I was proud to serve and still call a friend.

He never claimed to be perfect, never played it safe or took the easy way out, never pretended to be what he wasn't.

What we saw was what we got, and what we got was a real person and a remarkably effective leader.

Last week, George Allen declined to run for governor again in 2009. In so doing, he turned down a consensus Republican nomination and the opportunity to face a comparatively weak Democratic opponent in the fall. He bypassed a chance to vindicate himself after 2006's dramatic fall from political grace. And he resisted the allure of another turn at center stage, with all the attention and adulation that attend it.

A measure of controversy may have lingered, but Allen knew his political skills and impressive first-term results were more than adequate to earn him another shot.

Ever the maverick, he was simply unwilling to retrace his steps across ground already well-traveled. He concluded the time and task were not right — for him, for his family, for his party, for his state.

And so he did the honest thing … the thing no one expected: He turned on his boot heels and walked away.

Among those in both parties reacting kindly to the news was Gov. Tim Kaine, who predicted we would see Allen seek public office again.

Perhaps. And, even as elder statesman, Allen is sure to be unusually active. But there is a deeper message here: Real life has few storybook endings. People judge others by standards they themselves could never meet. And earthly service is not invariably crowned with earthly accolades.

There is something more important than holding office and winning approval — something more important even than serving successfully.

It is integrity.

It is the assurance that, despite all your flaws, you did your best with the gifts you were given.

It is the knowledge that, even in the especially seductive arena known as politics, you were honest with others and true to yourself.

My sense is that George Allen will sleep soundly at night now. He knows who he is. He knows what he has accomplished. And he knows that, whatever lies ahead, the God who began a good work in him will see it through to completion.

Now, the interesting question in Virginia politics is this: Who will embrace his example and step forward to lead?

Who will combine energy with integrity and seek to pack even more constructive change into a single four-year term? Who will wake up on every one of the 1,461 mornings allotted to a Virginia governor determined to use Patrick Henry's platform to make Virginians more free and their lives more fulfilling?

That standard, if we apply it to all who would be governor, may well be the most important Allen legacy of them all. S



Frank B. Atkinson is chairman of McGuireWoods Consulting LLC and author of "Virginia in the Vanguard," the latest book in a series on state politics. He served in the cabinet of Gov. George Allen as counselor and director of policy from 1994 to 1996.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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