Dec 27, 2003 1:43 am


Gene Lyons is apparently not biting on the"we're going to fight the election of 2004 on the doctrine of pre-emption" meme.

(BTW, Gene's column is about to go into syndication, so I won't be able to get it via e-mail once that starts. Just FYI.)

Anyway, here's his column for this week. I can tell the Dean supporters are going to love this one.

Gene Lyons
November 12, 2003

Howard Dean, Rebel Rouser

As a white Southern male, I'd like to explain my views about Howard Dean and the confederate flag. Here are my credentials: I've lived in Arkansas since 1972, drive a pickup truck, currently own four hunting dogs, two horses, and three shotguns. I've hunted deer and ducks, consider fried catfish a delicacy, and haven't missed a Razorback game in years. I don't believe Faith Hill's ever recorded a song worth hearing twice, but that girl's got a smile that'd make a mule get down on its knees and thank God for Mississippi.

Enough stereotypes for you? Because it's also true that I'm of Irish Catholic descent, was born and raised in New Jersey--state motto:"Oh yeah, who says?"--and hardly knew where Arkansas was until I followed my wife home from grad school at the University of Virginia. Offer me NASCAR tickets or a root canal, and I'd opt for the dental work. Does that disqualify me? Some Professional Southerners would say so, but few Arkansans.

You accept Arkansas, Arkansas pretty much accepts you. Little Rock's nothing like Richmond, or Charleston, S.C.. There's little talk about the glories of the pre-Civil War South."Arkansas aristocrat" is a phrase that won't make. Indeed,"Thank God for Mississippi" is sometimes said to be the state motto, as our neighbor to the east often makes Arkansas look, well, so enlightened by contrast. You can infer somebody's politics by whether or not they think it's funny.

Anyhow, I've been on the lookout for confederate flags over the past week, but haven't actually seen any. Not even at the feed store or the biker bar out on the old Conway highway. The old boy at the saddle shop had some baseball caps with a rebel flag motif, but didn't appear to have sold many. They looked out of place with the boots and bridles and cowboy hats. Wearing one would pretty much be the equivalent of going around with your middle finger stuck in the air.

People who act like that don't vote anyway. Even if they did, Howard Dean could win the support of every rebel flag-waving redneck in Arkansas and still lose badly--which I'm persuaded he'd do if he got the Democratic nomination, losing the presidential election in the process.

But enough about one small Southern state, albeit one whose electoral votes could easily turn the 2004 election. My larger point is that the South is a big, complicated place. Racial melodrama simply doesn't dominate public debate throughout the region anymore, as Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) did his opportunistic best to point out during the recent Democratic debate.

"The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don't drive around with Confederate flags on pickup trucks," he said."The last thing we need in the South," he told Dean"is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do."

Sigh. See, in my view, the whole point of America and the Democratic party is that this kind of identity politics is a dead end. Howard Dean made his point a lot more effectively when I heard him at a Little Rock appearance earlier this year. What he planned to ask Southern white men, the former Vermont governor said, was"You've been voting Republican for thirty years, ever since Nixon. What have you got to show for it? Better schools? Better jobs? Reliable health insurance?"

Bringing a potentially divisive symbol like the rebel flag into it wasn't the smartest thing Dean's done in an otherwise cleverly innovative campaign. But his rivals' make-believe outrage made them look ridiculous. Does anybody really think that Al Sharpton and Sen. John Kerry were personally offended?

What hurts Democrats most in such charades is the absurd ritual of forcing somebody like Dean to apologize for a remark everybody knows wasn't offensive in the first place. It feeds the perception that they're fakers and panderers to trumped-up, phony grievances every one--a party dominated by sissies and snobs.

And that's an image that Republicans have become unpleasantly clever at manipulating. See, it's not race that sets the South apart these days as much as religion: specifically a suburbanized brand of Protestant fundamentalism that comforts people uneasy with rapid social and technological change, by offering rigid moral certitude and positing modernity and cosmopolitanism as the enemy.

If White House political guru Karl Rove gets his way, from Arlington, Virginia to El Paso, Texas, the 2004 election will turn not on Iraq or the dubious glories of the Bush economy but on liberal judges, partial-birth abortion, and gay marriage.

Given President Bush's manifest failures, Arkansas's not the only Southern-accented state that the right Democratic nominee could win in 2004. But Dean's vulnerability on the cultural/religious issues, I fear, could doom his candidacy across the region.

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