Georgians Rally 'round the Flag

September 22, 1994|By GEORGE F. WILL

ATLANTA — Atlanta.--Georgia's gubernatorial race is a reminder that modern American history is a series of aftershocks from the Polk administration. A century and a half ago President Polk gave us the war with Mexico, hence vast new territories, hence the issue of slavery in the territories, hence the Civil War and, in time, the great Georgia state-flag controversy.

In 1956, in a segregationist tantrum, Georgia's legislators redesigned the state flag. These late-comers to the Lost Cause made the Confederate battle flag fill two-thirds of the new flag. Last year Gov. Zell Miller, a Democrat, endorsed the idea of changing the flag. Mr. Miller, a great-grandson of a Confederate soldier wounded at Chancellorsville and Gettysburg, calls the flag an ''inflammatory symbol'' that ''exhibits pride in the enslavement of many of our ancestors.''

This year his career might get furled because his Republican opponent, Guy Millner, like most Georgians, rallies 'round the flag.

The fight Governor Miller has picked with the dotty romantics of the rebellion is admirable for being utterly optional. But like Pickett's charge, it has only the melancholy glory that attends predestined futility persevered in.

The flag fight has torn the governor's connection with lots of voters whose anger probably has less to do with race than with the fact he is another card-carrying member of the political class (he was lieutenant governor for 16 years) who is presuming to hector them about politically correct adornments for public spaces.

Governor Miller is running the kind of campaign that comes naturally to his campaign manager, James Carville. Call it Class War 101. It features many variations on the theme that Mr. Millner has made money, has a big house and so on. Mr. Millner, son of a north Florida gas-station operator, has indeed assembled complex business interests, so his personal finances are a vein of information to be mined by populists who like jobs but suspect that job-creators must be sinners.

Here, for example, is the Miller campaign's idea of a Millner scandal: Mr. Millner ''said he would not support the gay lifestyle'' but 100 temporary employees of his corporation were hired by a Chicago marketing firm to hand out questionnaires at the April 1993 gay-rights march in Washington.

The governor's campaign has risen to the challenge of lowering the tone of American politics, as in this labored japery about Mr. Millner's finances: ''Information on Guy's real-estate holdings may be obtained by submitting a request written in Sanskrit and sent to a post-office box in Calcutta. Guy's partnership information is in the hands of Tibetan monks, and may be viewed by appointment with the Dalai Lama.'' To call such stuff sophomoric is unfair to undergraduates.

Governor Miller can boast that Georgia has the fastest-growing population east of the Mississippi, but as Bill Clinton can attest, economic growth does not guarantee voter gratitude in an era of anxiety about the national character. The challenger's campaign will try to turn what once was a boast -- ''FOB,'' Friend of Bill -- into an indictment. President Clinton's ''unfavorable'' rating among Georgians is high and rising. Governor Miller introduced Mr. Clinton to the 1992 Democratic National Convention. Georgia television viewers ''probably will see a clip of that,'' says Mr. Millner dryly.

When the Democrats' 1988 convention was held here, two of Georgia's 10 members of Congress were Republicans. Now four of 11 are. Next year six may be, partly because Democrats have pushed racial gerrymandering of the sort that creates black-majority districts by concentrating black voters, in the process removing reliable Democratic votes from contiguous districts, thereby making those districts easier for Republicans to carry.

The Democrats' electoral losing streak since Bill Clinton's election began in Georgia three weeks after the election, when Paul Coverdell defeated Sen. Wyche Fowler in a runoff. Since then Democrats have lost two governorships (in New Jersey and Virginia), the lieutenant governorship of Arkansas, another Senate election (in Texas, for the seat Lloyd Bentsen vacated to become treasury secretary), two special congressional elections (in Kentucky and Oklahoma) and the mayoralties of New York, Los Angeles and Jersey City. Now Georgia is back in the spotlight.

Georgia is one of only four Southern states (the others were Tennessee, Louisiana and Arkansas) that the all-Southern Clinton-Gore ticket carried. Georgia is one of the 12 most populous states. Today six of those (California, Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey and Virginia) have Republican governors. It is possible that after November five of the other six also will (New York, Texas, Florida, Pennsylvania and Georgia, which last elected a Republican governor 122 years ago).

Those 11 states have 269 electoral votes, one short of the 270 needed to elect a president. So the political community will be watching this tuneup for Mr. Carville's attempt to re-elect his client in the White House.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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