- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

I see where Howard Dean has aroused the ire — and sheer political opportunism — of his Democratic rivals by claiming he can talk real folks’ language: “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pick-up trucks.”

First a lesson on language in these parts, Mr. Dean: That should be Confederate flags on their pick-up trucks; it’s the shotgun rack that goes in the truck. Sir, if you’re going to have much truck, literally, with the Good Ol’ Boy vote, you need to brush up on your prepositions.

But, don’t you know, if any Yankee could appeal to Good Ol’ Boys, it’d be a Vermonter. That state is known for its character and characters, its Green Mountain Boys and fearless individualism — in short, for its Southernism.

But does that legendary Vermont still exist? Or, like much of the South, has it been Americanized, too? Just look at what has happened to its neighbor New Hampshire, which is rapidly becoming indistinguishable from (shudder) Massachusetts.

No wonder Howard Dean thinks he can talk to “guys” — he means folks — “with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks.” The Vermonter of the storybooks — freedom-loving, plain-dealing, contemptuous of fashion and riches — sounds a lot like the classic Southern yeoman, a k a Redneck.

And before all the angry letters begin to arrive, I emphasize that I use the word Redneck without the pejorative connotations. It’s a damned good word — damned by political fashion and by Yankee correspondents who’ve used it as a synonym for ignorant racist.

Howard Dean is to be commended for talking about folks with Confederate flags on their pick-ups as if they were real people worth talking to, even appealing to. His problem is that he himself is so slick and modernesque — an amalgam of glib one-liners — that he doesn’t sound enough like a real Vermonter to have much in common with an old boy in a pick-up.

Naturally no expression of good will goes unpunished. For extending the hand of friendship across class divisions and regional divides, the former governor of Vermont immediately drew fire.

His mention of the Confederate flag set off a Pavlovian reaction among various of his rivals. Sensing an opportunity to gain some political points, they started yelping.

Dick Gephardt, who’s from Missouri — Bootheel and Little Dixie and all — knows better, but he accused his opponent of appealing to the kind of people “who disagree with us on bedrock Democratic values like civil rights.”

John Kerry — from Massachusetts, of course — accused Howard Dean of pandering “to lovers of the Confederate flag.”

John Edwards of North Carolina used the same line I had first heard when the Freedom Riders were trying to teach Southerners the error of our ways: “The last thing we need in the South is someone like you coming down and telling us what we need to do.” It was like old times.

Al Sharpton piled on, too, of course. There’s no issue he can’t demagogue, but race leads his list. I kept wondering when he would sic Tawana Brawley on poor Mr. Dean.

All these pols are sophisticated enough (a) to know what Howard Dean meant and that it was well-intentioned, and (b) to pretend that it wasn’t, so they can accuse their opponent of waving around a racist symbol.

Some student of the semi-science of semiotics (the study of symbols) ought to be able to get a master’s thesis out of this little blow-up. Because what we have here is a classic case of one symbol meaning two different things:

To some of us, the Confederate flag symbolizes the courage and chivalry of the Lost Cause, the gallantry of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, the Dixie of song and story … and all those Early on a Frosty Morn feelings.

Let it be noted that in Europe, the Confederate emblem has no racial connotations; it symbolizes the South itself, especially Southern rock ‘n’ roll bands. Which is the way it ought to be in an ideal world.

But to others, because that flag has been hijacked by racist mobs, it has become a hateful thing.

The same, degrading trick was played on the perfectly sound principle of states’ rights when it was reduced to a cover for racial oppression; it has yet to regain its respectability. Supporters of states’ rights now have to call their principle Federalism in order to escape the old shibboleth’s unwholesome connotations.

So too was the Confederate flag abused by the haters that used it for cover. It, too, acquired unwholesome connotations. And that’s what Howard Dean’s opponents seized upon. They rushed to beat their opponent about the head and shoulders — with the Confederate flag.

It was a low thing to do, but it’s not the first time that proud banner has been used for low purposes.

Paul Greenberg is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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