As stereotypes go, few ignite the emotions as reliably as the Southern Pickup Truck With Confederate Flag. Just ask Dr. Howard Dean.
The Democrat front-runner opened ye unholy can of worms recently when he told an Iowa newspaper that he wanted "to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks." Dean made the remark by way of explaining his opposition to some gun-control legislation and as part of his Southern strategy of inclusiveness.
As in: "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross section of Democrats," he explained to the Des Moines Register.
And, "White folks in the South who drive pickups with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us and not them because their kids don't have health insurance, and their kids need better schools, too," he said at a Democratic National Committee meeting in February.
In the wake of Dean's most recent remarks, a veritable maelstrom of Bubba-ness has ensued. You'd have thought Dean had invoked Satan by the reaction of the other Democratic candidates, who began jockeying for Most Virtuous and made literal the politics of bumper sticker slogans.
John Kerry accused Dean of being "craven," and pandering to the National Rifle Association.
"I'd rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA, who understands that the Confederate flag belongs in museums."
Richard Gephardt issued a statement saying he'd rather "be the candidate for the guys with American flags in their pickup trucks."
Oh, yeah? Well, the Rev. Al Sharpton said he'd rather confront people who "wave the Confederate flag," not embrace them.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman's spokesman said Dean's remark was "irresponsible and reckless." John Edwards, a North Carolinian, said that "to assume that Southerners who drive trucks would embrace this symbol is offensive."
And George Bush, who drives a pickup truck, said: "Who?"
This amusing display of Bubba one-upmanship proves only one thing: When it comes to yahoo-ism, nobody can accuse the South of hogging the market. Southern boys who drive pickup trucks - with or without flag decals - are wondering what these guys are talking about, if they're wondering at all.
Living in rural South Carolina, I'm surrounded by pickup trucks and, I reckon, good ol' boys. Yeah, sure nuf, we get together every sundown at the corner Esso to shuck corn, swat flies, chaw tobacco and flirt with our cousins while swapping tall tales about Gen. Sherman's mysterious overnight with Miss Liza's great-grandmama and how her house miraculously survived the Yankee fires. Wee-dawgies.
But I'll be gall-durned if I can remember the last time I saw a Confederate flag - on a truck or off it, as we say in the sticks. Rednecks, short for Dean's "White folks in the South who drive pickups with Confederate flag decals," are not indigenous to the South, as any visitor to rural Vermont or Massachusetts knows.
We've still got a few Confederate reminders around, and you can find a flag if you hunt for one. But the South is so inundated with out-of-state license plates and accents, it seems weirdly out of tune to discuss the region's demographics in terms of pickup trucks and battle flags.
The whole episode smacks of classism if not racism: Northern Nobility embraces Southern Idiocracy. How long before one of them says: "Why some of my best friends are Southerners"?
I don't have much use for the Confederate flag and wrote three columns urging that the flag be removed from the South Carolina statehouse dome. It seemed inappropriate to fly such a divisive symbol over a public property.
But the Confederate flag is tricky among Southerners - a volatile issue, the nuances of which are often lost on Northerners and other visitors to the kudzu states. Not everyone with the battle flag in his home or on his truck is a dangerous racist, though some are. Plenty of sticker-free Trans-Am drivers in New York are, too, not that I have anything against Trans-Ams.
For many others - well-educated, prosperous, thoughtful Southerners, as opposed to the undereducated, uninsured, vacant-staring Walker Evans sharecroppers Dean apparently envisions - the Confederate flag is a symbol of Southern history, of battles fought and lost, of family members valiant and dead, of a person's right to express himself even if it offends others.
Gephardt, Dean, Lieberman and Kerry probably needn't waste too much time trying to court the Southern pickup crowd. Most I've seen - with American or Confederate flags on them - also have another sticker on their bumpers. It's red, white and blue and says: Bush.