Howard Dean's search for the South's poor n' oppressed

Posted: Dec 10, 2003 12:00 AM

COLUMBIA, S.C. - Dr. Howard Dean, apparently having given up on the Confederate flag voting bloc, turned Sunday to African-Americans, invoking civil-rights history and towing a miniature rainbow coalition in the person of Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., D-Ill.

Dean left no emotional touchstone ignored. He mentioned the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. and recited highlights of our civil-rights heritage. He even managed to include the 1963 church bombing in Birmingham that killed four little black girls.

Well, how else you gonna attract black votes in the Deep South if you don't bring up the worst of the region's history?

Speaking at a local black church, Dean sprinkled a little holy dust here and there, mentioning Jesus, the Lord and the New Testament. Presumably, when Dean speaks in synagogues, he sticks with the Old Testament and leaves Jesus parked on the sidewalk next to the pickup trucks with Confederate flags. Allah only knows what he pulls out for Muslim audiences.

In a hotel ballroom following the church service, heads bobbed in agreement as Dean reminded folks how Republicans, beginning with Richard Nixon, had divided the South racially. Not that Dean ever would do any such thing, though it takes a little creative wordsmithing to work the Birmingham church bombing into your speech 40 years later.

As Dean spoke, I heard a few "Amens" and "That's rights" and glanced around looking for the black church ladies mumbling their affirmation. Wait, cut! Where's the casting director? Alas, except for the dapper members of Jackson's entourage, the audience of about 300 was mostly white.

Dean, whose manner can shift suddenly from soft-spoken bedside manner to whip'-em-up rant with alarming ease, told folks that Bush has forgotten that we're human beings out here. As a human being, I began to warm to his message. To feel embraced by a deeply caring physician.

I suddenly wanted to sew my own clothes and began hating corporate America as I knew I should. I wished everybody could just get along and hoped there never would be any more wars ever-ever. Then suddenly, Dr. Dean's Mr. Hyde interrupted my reverie and thundered that if elected he would take back the flag from John Ashcroft and Rush Limbaugh!!!!

The crowd went wild. Are there any two greater bogeymen to the Democratic mind than Ashcroft and Limbaugh? Never mind that Dean is at present running against fellow Democrats or that neither Limbaugh nor Ashcroft will be on any ballot.

Dean's Southern strategy is intended to avoid divisive social issues and focus on economic concerns shared by all races. In keeping with that strategy, he went through a laundry list of issues that concern blacks and whites equally: jobs, health care, education.

And as proof that Dean is a uniter not a divider, he introduced into evidence Exhibit A - Jesse L. Jackson Jr., who was born right up the road in Greenville. Jackson stepped up to the microphone as the game show host he was about to become, calling for all 17-year-olds in the audience who would turn 18 before the November election to "come on down." Yes, he really said that.

A young lady approached the lectern to enthusiastic applause. Next Jackson invited those who recently had married, divorced or moved to join her. By the end of the show, several dozen delighted would-be voters had gathered around the stage, whereupon Jackson's team helped them register to vote.

It is an interesting strategy for a Northern politician to invite Southern boys with Confederate flags on their trucks to join the party. It's interesting for a black politician to try to attract poor whites who, Jackson says, are as disenfranchised as blacks in the South.

But somehow their message doesn't ring quite true. Some Confederate rednecks may be poor, but they tend to be independent-minded and distrustful of government. And though blacks may recall the civil-rights struggle with reverence, they don't necessarily feel the "conservative" oppression their brethren insistently invoke to tempt their votes.

Which reminds me of a ceremony I attended here a few years ago to celebrate Martin Luther King's birthday. When the young black man at the microphone asked if everybody was happy with their lives today, the all-black crowd shouted back: "Yeah!!!!" Whereupon the man shouted back: "Nooooo, you're not happy!"

Dean's truest comment may have been this: "It's time we had a new politics in America - a politics that refuses to pander to our lowest prejudices."

I couldn't agree more.