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Political discourse often shifts to hogwash

Tuesday, November 04, 2003

Presidential candidate Howard Dean is in trouble for suggesting that "I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks."

According to the conventional wisdom, this is very stupid. It is called a gaffe, defined in the political dictionary as something that may be acceptable in context, if people were of a mind to consider context and to remain fair-minded -- which, of course, in politics they are not.

In fact, Dean was trying to make another point. Responding to Sen. John Kerry's criticism that he was not sufficiently anti-gun, the Vermont governor told the Des Moines Register: "We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad-based cross section of Democrats."

Well, fancy that. A broad-based cross section of Democrats, indeed! Why, the nerve of the guy, when everyone knows a narrow cross section of Democrats will be needed to defeat George II.

I don't know what to make of Howard Dean, but I do know this: The one thing that cannot be abided in the political arena is anything commonsensical. If sensible comments are not denounced immediately, there is no telling where the situation might lead.

So, not surprisingly, some Democratic candidates immediately took umbrage. Of course, politicians keep their umbrage in a handy place as they go merrily down the campaign trail. In fact, the umbrage is usually kept in a briefcase carried by an aide. At such time that a candidate hears one of his opponents say something menacingly sensible, the candidate than grabs the umbrage and takes it to the media.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri was quick to react.

"I don't want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," he said. "I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for guys with American flags in their pickup trucks." (Let us pause now for a collective "duh.")

Still, it is odd that Gephardt is limiting his pitch to patriotic pickup owners. Where does that leave millions of other Americans who drive other vehicles?

At this point, I wish to make clear that my pickup truck -- if I had a pickup truck, which I don't -- definitely would never carry a Confederate flag. Now don't go supposing that this is because I am not from the South. Why, I am from the South -- the Southern Hemisphere. Heck, where I come from, folks think the Southerners live in the North.

Still, I don't think, as Gephardt apparently does, that every knucklehead Confederate flag-toter is by definition a racist. Some may see it honestly, if naively, as a historical symbol of their Southern heritage. Others may be interior decorators who like the pattern.

Of course, the Confederate flag has a special sensitivity for African Americans, and fair enough. But the Rev. Al Sharpton, another Democratic candidate, was not best placed to express this. His umbrage took the following form: "If I said I wanted to be the candidate for people that ride around with helmets and swastikas, I would be asked to leave."

Actually, he doesn't need to go that far. Sensible people have reason enough to ask him to leave right now.

Not to be outdone in political fatuousness, Dean countered with a statement that was beyond obvious. "I want people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags and vote Democratic, because the need for quality health care, jobs and a good education knows no racial boundaries."

Having heard this, the Democratic candidates may now have to hand their umbrage back to their aides to be stowed away in their briefcases until the next insincere occasion. Darn!

Actually, none of the above comments matched that of Sen. Zell Miller of Georgia, who, asked about the pickup/Confederate flag statement on NBC's "Meet the Press," said that it was a stereotype and that Dean "knows as much about the South as a hog knows about Sunday."

This criticism of Dean's knowledge of the South may be warranted for all I know, but it is very unfair to hogs. Hogs are intelligent animals who certainly know when it is Sunday.

After 35 years in journalism, I know my swine. As I can personally attest, many hogs attend church services. They have heard about hog heaven and want to go there. I often hear them snuffling about and making low snorting noises in the back pews during the sermon or adding their high-pitched squeals during the hymns.

As for the campaign, if the Democrats were smart, and not so busy taking umbrage, they might have a big tent that didn't have most everyone else parked outside it. This is what Dean was suggesting in a mangled way. But, I say, leave the hogs out of it.

Reg Henry can be reached at or 412-263-1668.

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