Friday, September 03, 2004

Miller Time

So now, somehow, Zell Miller, who risked his political career to try to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from the Georgia statehouse, is dismissed as a "Dixiecrat" and a racist. Some people just can't hear a Southern white male raise his voice without seeing a sheet with eyeholes cut out.

Too bad for them. Miller, ragardless of what party he "really" is, is an American original: the kind of man who can be led, but can't be pushed. He has his values, and he knows other people do, too. Most of us are like that, to some degree. Have been ever since George Washington cussed his army of obstreperous Yankees and learned to win their respect. Washington isn't the national hero because he was a born hero; he earned it by learning what his countrymen would respect, and becoming that man.

Miller, out of the Scots-Irish red-dirt hill country of the South, is a scion of the stock of Washington's soldiery. And he understand something about the political mind of middle America that eludes many of his party's leaders.

Miller wrote a piece in June 2001, analyzing the Democrats' defeat in the South the previous year. Concluded that "Southerners —- a decisive number of them -— believed the national Democratic Party did not share their values, and they did not trust the national party with their money."

Let me tell a little story. When I was running for re-election as governor of Georgia in 1994, there were some who argued I should change my position on guns. Poll after poll came back showing that most Georgians favored various forms of gun control -— or so it looked on the surface. But in the South, there's always a lot under the surface.

I decided to ask voters something else about gun control. I asked them if they agreed or disagreed with this statement: "Whenever I hear politicians talking about gun control, it makes me wonder if they understand my values or my way of life." You know how many agreed? Seventy- three percent!

For a politician in the South, gun control is not just about guns. Gun control -— along with a whole bunch of other issues -— is about values. What you are for says a lot about who you are and who you aren't. If Southern voters ever start to think you don't understand them -— or even worse, much worse, if they think you look down on them -— they will never vote for you. Folks in the South have a simple way of saying this: "He's not one of us." And when a politician hears these words, he's already dead.

He used to say that, as governor of Georgia, he should spend his time on issues more important than the Confederate battle symbol on the state flag. But in 1993, as Atlanta prepared to host the 1996 Summer Olympics, some Georgians worried about the state's image. Miller began to push for a change, but with an eye to his constituents, and a respect for their respect for their heritage. "What we fly today is not an enduring symbol of our heritage," he said, "but the fighting flag of those who wanted to preserve a segregated South."

He also steered his proposal for flag change in the direction of tradition, not change for its own sake: he proposed to return the flag to what it had been before the 1950s. From 1879 to 1956, the state flag was essentially the "Stars and Bars," the original national flag of the CSA government, with (after 1902) the Georgia seal off to one side. Miller's proposal would have distanced the flag from the Dixiecrat/segregationist change of the 1950s without erasing the Confederate heritage of the state.

But the notion that this whole issue was being forced on the state doomed the plan before it got a chance. People who support the validity of the Confederate battle flag as a regional icon often do so because the flag stands legitimately for the soldiers and common folk of the CSA. They may also see it as representing many of the qualities that the Southern soldiers fought for, such as resistance to tyranny, regional distinctiveness, honor, and republican virtues. This approach sees the flag as a historic symbol, rooted in the Civil War experience of Southern people.

The drive to tear it down came from non-Southern leadership in the NAACP. Running short of examples of institutional bigotry in the South, to put in its fund-raising appeals in the North, it turns to divisive attacks on symbols. Their anti-flag resolution was bombastic in the absurd: "WHEREAS, the tyrannical evil symbolized in the Confederate Battle Flag is an abhorrence to all Americans and decent people of this country, and indeed, the world and is an odious blight upon the universe," and so forth. To say that Southerners, black or white, are incapable of seeing through this hyperbole is, frankly, insulting.

Afterward, Miller wrote:

I got beaten like a drum in the Georgia General Assembly. I now know why: Many white Georgians who harbored no racist feelings viewed efforts to remove Confederate symbols as a submission to the outside forces of 'political correctness.' It was as though they were being looked down upon and told to hide our history —- even, in a particular and painful way, to hide themselves -— to avoid antagonizing interest groups or embarrassing investors or tourists. That was under the surface.

Miller's successor in the Georgia statehouse, Roy Barnes, failed to learn the lesson. Barnes ramrodded an ugly new flag through the state legislature in barely a week, with little debate. The Peach State was hosting or vying for five NCAA basketball events at the time, and the NCAA, under pressure from the NAACP, was threatening a boycott if the flag didn't change.

Barnes told legislators the popular anger would simmer down by election day. He was wrong. He had redrawn Georgia's state flag and stripped off the part of it that Georgia soldiers had carried in the Civil War; next chance they got, descendants of those soldiers sent Barnes packing. As a former county GOP chairman in Georgia put it, "I tried for months to tell the Republicans down here that the flag was an issue, but they wouldn't believe it. I told them, "You don't understand -- these people won't whine and moan, they'll just go do something about it.' "

You don't have to be a race-baiter or a flag-waver to object to politicians making decisions that way. It's not a Georgia thing or a Southern thing, exclusively, to think that arrogant I-know-better-than-you attitudes deserve to be voted out of office, whatever their political persuasion.

When Howard Dean, early in the campaign, said, “I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks .... We can’t beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats,” he echoed the gist of Miller's message, but in a crude way that insulted the realities of the South -- which are both complex and simple but above all are fine-tuned to those who do, or don't understand them.

Miller was on a book tour at the time; an interviewer asked him about it, and Miller replied, "Howard Dean knows about as much about the South as a hog knows about Sunday." He described "Michael Dukakis coming to Georgia [in 1988] and having this rally, and they had all these bales of hay stashed around here and there, like it was some kind of set from the television show 'Hee Haw.' That’s not what the South is."

The South right now, if you took its economy, it would be the third largest in the world, next to the United States as a whole and next to Japan. Fifty-five hundred African-Americans right now hold office in the South. In Georgia we have several statewide elected officials who are African-American and who were elected last year in a race where a senator and a governor were being defeated. They were being elected in a state that’s 70 percent white. This is not the South that Howard Dean thinks it is. Sure, we drive pickups, but on the back of those pickups, you see a lot of American flags. It’s the most patriotic region in the country. And you see hardworking individuals that want to instill values in their children, and you see a very, very strong work ethic in the South.

Notce how he slammed Dean without also denigrating the Confederate flag and those who respect it. He talked up the New South without talking down the old one. That's a smart Southern Democratic politician. John Edwards, on the campaign trail, also played it right, at the time of the flap (November 2003):

To stereotype Southerners as pickup-truck, you know, Confederate-flag voters, I think, is also a mistake. But I think it's even bigger than that. ... It's like saying to any group of voters, including voters in the South, 'You know, you don't know what's best for you. We know what's best for you. Even though you don't understand that we're better for you, we're going to come and make sure you understand it. We'll explain it to you.' There's an elitism and a condescension associated with that attitude that's enormously dangerous to us.

That's not the tack John Kerry chose, however. His reaction to Dean was: "It is simply unconscionable for Howard Dean to embrace the most racially divisive symbol in America. I would rather be the candidate of the NAACP than the NRA." Of course, Massachusetts and the South have never been the best of friends.

As Miller wrote in 2001,

The point I'm making is that for Southern voters, the issues you choose to talk about -— or not talk about —- are as important as the positions you take on those issues. Southern voters may say they're for gun control, and they may well be for gun control, but they simply don't trust anybody who spends too much time talking about it. Bill Clinton understood that. Al Gore did not.

That was before 9/11, before Iraq, before a lot of things. But bear that in mind if you re-read his words from the Republican Convention this week:

But don't waste your breath telling that to the leaders of my party today. In their warped way of thinking America is the problem, not the solution. They don't believe there is any real danger in the world except that which America brings upon itself through our clumsy and misguided foreign policy.