Tough to win presidency without slave-state cred

September 04, 2006|By Theo Lippman Jr.

FENWICK ISLAND, Del. -- Fox News Sunday host Chris Wallace asked Delaware's senior senator last week, "What kind of chance would a Northeastern liberal like Joe Biden stand in the South if you were running in Democratic primaries against Southerners like Mark Warner [of Virginia] and John Edwards [North Carolina]?"

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. answered, "Better than anybody. You don't know my state. My state was a slave state."

I thought of making fun of him - along the lines of quoting members of a "Sussex County United Daughters of Slaveholders for Biden 2008." Sussex is the most Southern of Delaware's three counties, geographically and culturally.

But the fact is, he had better let people know he is not a "Northeasterner." He had better appeal beyond that. The slave states/Southwest are the new Northeast/Midwest electoral power bloc that determined presidents for more than 100 years.

In the 20th century, every Democratic president but one could boast strong "slave state" credentials. No Democratic candidate who did not carry most of the 15 slave states was ever elected president.

Woodrow Wilson was born in Virginia, grew up in Georgia and the Carolinas, then practiced law in Atlanta before settling in New Jersey. He also was married to a Georgian.

Franklin D. Roosevelt was New York-born and -bred. But after he was stricken with polio in 1921, he bought a working farm, a second home and a rehab spa in Warm Springs, Ga., spent months on end there, and called himself, in public speeches around the nation, "an adopted son of the South" and "a Georgia cracker."

Harry Truman was born in Missouri, the 13th star on the Confederate flag, and raised by his unreconstructed Confederate mother, Martha. On his mother's first visit to the White House, she was offered the bed in the Lincoln bedroom by her granddaughter. She said she'd sleep on the floor first.

Lyndon B. Johnson was a Texan through and through. Jimmy Carter was born and reared in rural Georgia. Both returned home after the White House, as did Mr. Truman.

Bill Clinton was born and reared in Arkansas. He has moved to New York, but his library is in Arkansas.

Only John F. Kennedy of Massachusetts was not a son, by birth or "adoption," of a slave state.

In the 20th century, Democrats were in the White House for 48 years, and in 45 of those years the president was a Southerner.

As 2008 looms, the dynamic looks healthy. A Pew Research Center poll early last month showed Mr. Biden fifth among Democratic presidential hopefuls; Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the presidential nominee in 2004, was fourth; his running mate, former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, was third; second was Al Gore, a Tennessean and former vice president. First was Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, who lived in Arkansas 17 years, practiced law there 15 years and was the state's first lady for 10. She has lived in New York far fewer years.

On the Republican side, there are similarities. The top five choices in the Pew poll, from the bottom up, are Sen. George Allen of Virginia; former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, a Georgian; Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, an Alabama belle; Rudolph W. Giuliani, former New York City mayor; and Arizona Sen. John McCain, who has lived in Virginia, Mississippi and Florida.

The Republican presidential history is no match for Democrats, Dixie-wise. But both George Bushes wound up in Texas. Dwight Eisenhower was born there and was posted to Southern Army bases in his early career. Theodore Roosevelt's mother was a Georgian, as unreconstructed as Mr. Truman's was. And Ronald Reagan was a Southern prosecutor fighting the Klan with Ginger Rogers. (Yes, a movie, but often the actor becomes the role.)

The Republican and Democratic leaders in the Pew polls are not necessarily going to do well in the 2008 Southern primaries.

Senator McCain said in South Carolina in 2000 that the Confederate battle flag was "offensive." He did poorly in that primary. He will have to be very clever in 2008 to nullify that remark.

And Senator Clinton is going to have to be very clever to nullify a passage in a popular book, Bill and Hillary: "`I love Bill,' she told [Baltimore writer] Taylor Branch. `I believe in him, but,' she added, her eyes rolling to the ceiling, `but Arkansas? God.'"

Theo Lippman Jr. is a retired Sun editorial writer living in Sussex County, Del. His e-mail is theo@mail.splus.net.

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