Ross Mackenzie

Howard Dean really put his mouth in it. The incident may mean he has kissed his sweet Democratic nomination good-bye.

Dean said - he has said the same thing several times since February - he still wants to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks. His most recent mouthing led to ridiculous responses by his fellow Democratic wannabes.

Richard Gephardt said he doesn't want to be the candidate "for guys with Confederate flags" in their pickups but "for guys with American flags." John Kerry, implicitly tying the Confederate flag issue to race and guns, said, "I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA."

Al Sharpton dismissed Dean as sounding more like "Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson," adding Dean is "insensitive" and "too arrogant to say 'I'm wrong.' " John Edwards, indignant and almost in tears, joined Sharpton in demanding Dean apologize - and added: "The last thing we need in the South is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need."

Initially, Dean dug in. "I was not wrong, John Edwards!" he said. Later, uncertain how to deal with such confrontational rabbits, he sought counsel from the sage Jimmy Carter. Ultimately Dean said, "I started this discussion in a clumsy way" and "I deeply regret the pain that I may have caused."

Dean is no dummy.

He obviously understands the Republicanization of the formerly Democratic South during the past decades. He meant by his remark that to strengthen themselves nationally the Democrats must broaden their appeal to precisely the Southern whites that have left the Democratic Party in droves. "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats," Dean said along the way. "I make no apology for reaching out to poor white people."

Yet he employed the wrong symbol and slipped. Up there in the Vermontian provinces, Howard Dean may have missed that rightly or wrongly the Confederate flag has been politicized - ideologized - as a symbol of white hatred of African-Americans. Its display on public property is absolutely improper. But its display on private property (even pickups) - indeed, its very mention - roils the domestic sea, as repeated scenes in Richmond amply testify.

And politically, the flag is a killer. Last year Democrat Ben "Cooter" Jones, of "Dukes of Hazzard" television fame, in his congressional campaign for Virginia's 7th District seat, employed the "General Lee" Dodge Charger from the TV show - complete with Confederate flag painted on the roof - as a prop. He said: "I do fly (the Confederate) flag" and "I'm not going to take it down." He lost with hardly more than 30 percent of the vote in a two-man race.

Ross Mackenzie

Ross Mackenzie lives with his wife and Labrador retriever in the woods west of Richmond, Virginia. They have two grown sons, both Naval officers.

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