Dining With Claude Allen, But Avoiding the Big Question

Conservatives in Washington and throughout the nation were shocked and dismayed with the blaring headlines this morning that former White House domestic policy adviser Claude Allen has been charged with a phony refund scheme at supermarkets and convenience stores throughout the suburban Washington area.

In a story that made the front pages of the New York Times and the Washington Post today, the 45-year-old Allen — who resigned last month as President Bush’s top adviser on domestic issues — has been arrested and charged in a scheme in which he received more than $5,000 in refunds for items he never bought at various stories. Allen’s lawyers are denying the charges.

For conservatives, the news about Allen is heartbreaking, to say the least.  For more than 20 years, the Philadelphia-born, Washington D.C.-raised Allen has been considered one of the brightest and most promising of black conservatives: as press secretary to former Sen. Jesse Helms (R.-N.C.), law clerk to a federal judge, head of the Virginia Human Resources department under Republican Gov. Jim Gilmore, and later deputy Health and Human Services secretary and then President Bush’s top assistant for domestic issues.

Two years ago, the President nominated Allen to the U.S Court of Appeals for the 4th Circuit but, with Democrats holding up his nomination in the Senate, he eventually asked that his name be withdrawn from consideration.

For me, the Allen story dealt a particular jolt: just two days before the story broke, on Wednesday, March 8, Allen and I had lunch and a long discussion of professional and personal matters at the "America" restaurant in Washington’s Union Station. At no time did the former Bush staffer bring up or even hint at the serious charge that would confront him 48 hours later.

Several sources, including a published report in the Washington Times, suggested that Allen had resigned from the Bush White House in disgust over the President not coming to the defense of military chaplains who had been hampered in their preaching of the Gospel. Allen told me that "my resignation had nothing to do at all with that issue," and voiced his dismay with the Washington Times for not checking with him about his retirement. Rather, Allen insisted, "I have three children, the oldest of whom is a teenager and I want to do something that will give me more time at home with them. I believe strongly that if you say you support the family, you should live that view as well."

Allen’s resignation from the White House staff was announced a week after the President’s State of the Union address earlier this year. He explained to me that he had informed the President and White House chief of staff Andrew Card about his decision to leave on the day after the address but kept it confidential for a week because "Here was the President out speaking across the country on the initiatives he had outlined in the State of the Union.  How would it look if he had just spelled them out and his domestic affairs adviser says, ‘I’m leaving?’"
He added that he did not believe that the President had to issue an executive order establishing the rights of chaplains, that "the answer in support of the chaplains by [White House Press Secretary] Scott McClellan was enough." (Radio talk show host and fellow White House correspondent Les Kinsolving had repeatedly hit McClellan at White House press briefings with the case of embattled chaplains and asked the President’s top spokesman whether Bush believed chaplains should be able to preach "the word of Jesus Christ." McClellan said the President clearly believed this).  

Over lunch, when I asked Allen what his future plans were, he said "I’m not sure."