WASHINGTON — Washington. -- A few blacks have expressed concern that the Democratic ticket is composed of ''two white Southern males,'' a criticism I regard as silly and meaningless.
The three white presidents who have done the most to liberate and lift the level of life of black people in my lifetime were Harry Truman from Jim Crow Missouri, Lyndon B. Johnson from segregated Texas and Jimmy Carter from Georgia, with its atrocious history of violent racism.
The two presidents who have done the most damage to black aspirations in this generation have been Ronald Reagan from California and George Bush from Connecticut.
So none of us can now make valid assumptions, invidious or hopeful, on the basis of which state a white man is from. Bill Clinton, the Rhodes scholar, and Al Gore Jr., the Harvard graduate, are so different from the old galluses-snappers and race-baiters such as Eugene Talmadge, Theodore Bilbo and ''Cotton Ed'' Smith that it is a gratuitous insult to slap the pejorative label of ''Southern white males'' on them.
I questioned before he made his choice the wisdom of Mr. Clinton abandoning the old ''conventional wisdom'' that a winning ticket must have geographical balance. I think I understand why, in a three-man race, Arkansas Governor Clinton has chosen a neighbor, Tennessee Senator Gore, to run with. This is the new ''Southern Strategy.''
Nothing is more important to Mr. Clinton's chances of winning the White House than his ensuring that neither President Bush nor H. Ross Perot wins 270 votes when the Electoral College gathers next December 6. So Mr. Clinton needs a base number of electors that he most likely can get in the South.
Note that in 1988, Mr. Bush carried both Arkansas and Tennessee, along with Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Kentucky, Louisiana, Missouri, North Carolina, South Carolina, Texas and Virginia. That is 151 electoral votes that Mr. Clinton must take away from Mr. Bush if he is either to get the 270 electoral votes he wants, or the spot of favorite if the election must be decided by the House of Representatives.
Mr. Bush simply cannot win without the South if he is challenged by both Mr. Clinton and Ross Perot in California, New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois. Bush strategists know this, which is why they sent him courting ''the Bubba vote'' in an all-white town in North Carolina on the Fourth of July.
Mr. Gore will help the ticket nationwide because he is a politician of the highest class whose foreign policy and environmental credentials are impeccable. George Bush and Dan Quayle won't be able to throw insipid lectures about ''family values'' at Mr. Gore, who might have headed the Democratic ticket but for his refusal to run so he could devote his attention to a son who had been injured in a tragic accident.
Senator Gore adds a double dose of regional pride to this campaign. The old Southerners will note that he is the son of a daddy senator who did Tennessee proud. Young Southerners see him as the brilliant ''New South'' leader who has behaved privately and in the Senate in ways that relieve the South of the ancient stigma of racism.
Were I in Governor Clinton's shoes, trying to lift the Democratic Party out of purgatory, I, too, would adopt this new ''Southern Strategy'' -- one that is going to be based on appeals for racial unity, not on the arousing of racial hatred.
I think Mr. Clinton's choice of a running mate has thrown shock waves through the Bush camp and lowered greatly the odds of a Perot presidency. Because if Mr. Clinton wins the South's electoral votes and the election goes to the House of Representatives, ''independent'' Perot will not have a chance. It would probably also mean that Mr. Perot kills off George Bush.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.