COLUMBIA, S.C. -- They just can't help it. As soon as politicians and pundits cross the South Carolina line, their IQs plummet 20 points.
I reckon the candidates figure if they say really dumb stuff, them lowbrow, redneck yahoos will vote them right into that great big ol' house up in Washington.
Yessiree-Bo, we're gonna rustle up some squirrels, suck on some hay straw, fry up some catfish, eat some Moon Pies and tell lies about how Diddy killed that cockfight cheat with a deer knife, and git us some dadgum votes.
Ho-hum, who has the remote?
Some of those yokels, like yokels everywhere, may be dumber 'n a box o' rocks, but they're smart enough to know what the newcomers want and, aiming to please, seem determined to give it to them. Good 'n' folksy-like.
Thus, media folk flying in have hardly touched down before they've spotted a real Confederate battle flag and discovered a genuine, gun-totin', pickup-drivin' fool who sounds just like John Edwards on a stump stop in the mill village.
On any other given day, a South Carolinian would have to hire a detective to locate a Confederate flag -- other than the one on the statehouse grounds or flying over a Maurice's Barbecue. Maurice, whose flagship joint happens to be located along the drive from the airport to downtown Columbia, is famous for his mustard-based barbecue sauce and his refusal to remove the flag from his premises (on principle, he'll tell you).
But somehow outsiders stumble right into the same old tired themes and recycled stories. My own theory is that the state keeps a stable of characters (gap teeth optional) on retainer and trots them out when the yankees come to town with their videocams. The rest of the year, Gomer and Gussie count the Canada geese on their estate property and bet on polo ponies.
The cliches are now so entrenched that the interaction of pol, pundit and The People has become a (BEG ITAL)folie a trois(END ITAL) -- a three-way dance of equal madness. Faux bubbas gone goofy. Everyone knows the script and each plays off the other according to stereotype.
What if everyone just stopped?
If there were no race-baiters, would there still be racists?
South Carolina is not without racists, of course. Nor is any other state.
But the South -- and especially South Carolina because of the flag flap and because it hosts the first Southern primary -- remains a quintessentially racist state in the minds of everyone except most of those who live here.
Thus, when pols and pundits cross the state line, they begin thinking racially.
The candidacy of Barack Obama makes race impossible to ignore, obviously. But what about when Republican Mike Huckabee comes to town and gratuitously starts talking about the Confederate flag? What does that mean?
It means that Huckabee -- smart, charming, witty though he may be -- is pandering to an audience that understands that states' rights is code for keeping blacks in their place. This is race-baiting with a wink and a nod, as well as a calculated attempt to steal some of John McCain's thunder.
McCain was confronted with the flag question in 2000: Should a symbol of racist hatred, albeit only for some, wave over a building that belongs to all? The polite and true answer is a simple "no," but back then McCain took the states' rights option. He later said he regretted his answer and believed the flag should come down.
The flag is down, though it is more noticeable now on the statehouse grounds than it was atop the dome. Yet here it comes again, compliments of Huckabee, who recited the litany without cue cards for his Myrtle Beach audience:
"You don't like people from outside the state coming in and telling you what to do with your flag. ... If somebody came to Arkansas and told us what to do with our flag, we'd tell 'em what to do with the pole. That's what we'd do."
Applause, applause, applause. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Yawn, yawn, yawn.
In 2003, when Howard Dean lamented that the South had to stop obsessing about on race, guns, God and gays, he wasn't necessarily wrong. But it is once again clear that the pols and pundits will have to go first.