Waving the Flag

Article excerpt

All right, so maybe Howard Dean could have thought of a better way of reaching out to white Southern men than saying he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Maybe he could have worked in a less fraught masculine symbol, and a less emblematic vehicle, too--a gun rack on his Nissan? No, we don't want to alienate the Million Moms and the UAW ... make that a Budweiser in his Thunderbird. Oh wait, that's illegal. Maybe Dean should just have made a commercial: a good-looking, crinkly-eyed white guy in a T-shirt and jeans, with just a few manly smudges, fishing with his little towheaded son while Grandpa plays a harmonica and Tommy Lee Jones intones: "Send a man to Washington: Send ... Howard Dean." No wait, not Washington, they hate the federal government down there. I give up!

People say they want politicians to get real, but just let one try to say something not totally blow-dried and focus-grouped, and everyone piles on--especially if, like Dean, he's the front-runner. Thus, white Southern politicians like John Edwards and Zell Miller attacked Dean for stereotyping white Southerners as racists when we all know nobody flies the Confederate flag anymore, or if they do it's merely a symbol of "heritage," while Al Sharpton accused him of failing to understand that people who flaunt the flag are, in fact, racists. "It is simply unconscionable for Howard Dean to embrace the most racially divisive symbol in America," John Kerry mock-thundered. "I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA." Dick Gephardt chimed in that he wanted to be the candidate for guys with American flags on their pickup trucks. Isn't that special? It's a safe bet that none of these men believe Dean is a racist, was making a covert racist appeal or was about to hoist the Confederate flag over downtown Burlington. Obviously, Dean meant that he wanted to win over working-class Southern whites who vote Republican against their own economic interests for misguided racial reasons. William Saletan pointed out in Slate that Dean has been using the Confederate flag image to applause from whites and blacks alike for months. As he put it to the Democratic National Committee in February:

I intend to talk about race during this election in the South. The Republicans have been talking about it since 1968 in order to divide us. And I'm going to bring us together. Because you know what? White folks in the South who drive pickup trucks with Confederate flag decals in the back ought to be voting with us and not them because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too.

What's wrong with that? Diane McWhorter, the Alabama native whose Pulitzer Prize-winning Carry Me Home is the indispensable chronicle of the civil rights struggle in Birmingham, thinks Dean may have "a tin ear for the South." (We'll leave for another time the question of why there is no such thing as a tin ear for the North.) My cousin Phoebe Pollitt, who teaches school in Boone, North Carolina, thinks Dean made another cultural slip by apologizing: "Most Southern white men in pickup trucks like plain-talking folks, even if they disagree, but then to back down or pander when there is criticism is a sign of weakness, 'un-real manliness,' so to speak. …