Paul Greenberg

It's a far piece to go for dinner. That's what William Faulkner is supposed to have said when he declined an invitation to a White House gala in honor of the country's Nobel laureates. What a glittering occasion that must have been. The host, John F. Kennedy, called it the greatest gathering of American intellects since Thomas Jefferson had dined there alone.

Not much for glitter, Mr. Faulkner.

But this gala dinner is in Charleston. Yes, charming, legendary, cultivated, captivating and, let's face it, usually eccentric and occasionally even grotesque Charleston. It all comes with the emotional territory. How could one pass up any chance to visit such a city and legend?

Here it's pronounced Chah-leston. As Mark Twain once noted, the educated Southerner has no use for Rs except at the beginnings of words. At least since it was one of the three literary capitals of the Old South, along with Richmond and New Orleans, there has been only one thing plain about Charleston: It is irresistible. And knows it.

Tonight's dinner is in honor of the bicentennial of Robert E. Lee's birth. And what a festive gathering it proved. From the firing of the antique cannon on Marion Square to the traditional Charlestonian dessert, Charlotte Russe.

The flags are posted this evening by the color guard of the Washington Light Infantry, which is also observing its 200th anniversary this year. Each in its proper place, both Old Glory and the Confederate Battle Flag are presented with due ceremony. It's an unremarked tribute to the continuity of this Republic - despite that brief if bloody interruption circa 1861-65.

The official records of that conflict are still compiled under the title, War of the Rebellion, but only those unreconstructed, North or South, are still prepared to argue over what the Civil War should be called. We long since have become one country again, as General Lee himself urged us to be once the issue was settled. When it was over, he let it be over. That, too, was part of his greatness.

The final, culminating toast of the whole grand evening rings loud:

To Robert Edward Lee of Old Virginia!

There is a pause, and then "Dixie" breaks out like a mighty wave. It lets you know where you are. And that one can celebrate the South without getting hung up on Southernism. Or political correctness. Or any of that other ideological stuff that just gets in the way. Even better than a loud chorus of "Dixie" is a certain shared stillness the mention of his name still evokes in these latitudes.

Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.