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Newt Gingrich Navigates The South Carolina Primary's Racial Undercurrent

Gingrich

First Posted: 01/20/2012 8:52 pm Updated: 01/21/2012 1:38 pm

COLUMBIA, S.C. -- Race here in South Carolina is like a current in a broad river: deep under the surface, powerful if unseen, capable of either speeding swimmers toward the opposite bank, or drowning them.

Over the years it has propelled candidates as diverse as Strom Thurmond and Barack Obama; it has snared politicians as nimble as Bill Clinton and John McCain.

This week, in the Republican primary, the unseen current of race helped propel Newt Gingrich into the lead.

It's a complicated matter. The force was not "racism." It was resentment. It was the fact that white South Carolinians despise -- loathe -- being told by Yankees that there is something wrong with their culture, with their history, and they judge politicians by their willingness to spit in the face of what has come to be called "political correctness."

In Orangeburg on Friday, speaking to a two-room overflow crowd in a shopping mall, Newt Gingrich inveighed against the cultural forces his listeners see ranged against them: "anti-religious judges," "academic journalists," bureaucrats, Hollywood and of course "Obama" -- Gingrich never calls him "President Obama."

Newt paused to take time to toy with Juan Williams, the Fox commentator who last Monday -- in the pivotal moment of the campaign here -- had questioned whether Gingrich was seeking to "belittle people" by talking about the "food stamp president" and by suggesting that urban youths do janitorial work in schools.

Gingrich's sneering, "Well ... Juan," reply in that debate brought the crowd to its feet and launched him toward the lead. In Orangeburg, he went further. Kids need to learn the virtues of work at a young age, the former speaker declared. Williams, Gingrich said, his voice dripping with condescension, thought that the "idea of work" was something "worthy of academic study, not something to inflict on young people."

The crowd howled with laughter. Gingrich did not mention that Williams is black. He did not have to. But the point was not that Newt targeted a black man. It was subtler than that. It was that he was not afraid to do so.

"It's not race itself," said Dick Harpootlian, the chairman of the Democratic Party in South Carolina. "It's the political correctness stuff that gets people mad, and the resentment of it is what Gingrich plays to. The fact that he was willing to take the guy on is what the people who like him were seeing in him."

Indeed, there are no "segs" anymore; Dixiecrat Thurmond is long gone. The Confederate battle flag does not fly from the flagpole atop the statehouse. Rep. Tim Scott, an African-American, represents Charleston, the cultural inner-sanctum of the Old South. On the grounds of the Capitol, not far from a Confederate monument, there is an imposing monument to African-American history, complete with a diagram of a slave ship.

If Atlanta became famous as the "City Too Busy to Hate," South Carolina -- with its network of excellent (federal) highways, export-oriented manufacturing and influx of Yankee business-types, vacationers and retirees -- is a state rising so fast into a suburban present that the old stories have no relevance.

But in politics, race remains a subtext, a landmine or a booster rocket, depending on the circumstance. And it is woven through the political history perhaps more deeply than in any other state -- a counterpoint in white and black.

In 1948, race made Thurmond a national figure. When the Democrats, led by Hubert Humphrey, endorsed a pro-integration platform, the South Carolina senator walked out and led the Dixiecrat ticket.

In 1964, Thurmond and others began the movement of white Southerners into the GOP with the nomination of Barry Goldwater, who ran against Lyndon Johnson's civil rights commitment and activism.

Thurmond's protege, Harry Dent, was the architect of Richard Nixon's "Southern Strategy" in the 1970 mid-terms, a whole symphony of "dog whistle" politics in which Vice President Spiro Agnew attacked the Democrats for supposedly coddling criminals and welfare recipients and being out of the cultural mainstream.

In the 2000 GOP primary here, Sen. John McCain -- fresh off a stunning victory in New Hampshire -- was blindsided by one of the nastiest and at times overtly racist attacks in recent times. Unknown operatives circulated a flier claiming that McCain had "fathered a black child." In fact, he had adopted a girl from Bangladesh.

George W. Bush's campaign denied any involvement, and none was ever found. Bush won the primary -- and the election.

In 2008, Barack Obama propelled his campaign past the challenge of then-Sen. Hillary Clinton with his own version of "dog whistle" politics in reverse. He styled himself as the culmination of the story of the rise of black Americans to freedom and empowerment, and worked the large African-American constituency in the state -- part of the old Cotton South -- assiduously, along with his wife, Michelle, whose family hailed from the state.

A huge rally in Columbia, full of African-American stars led by Oprah Winfrey, made the case and told the Obama story in rock-star fashion.

As Obama was winning the primary here in 2008, former president Bill Clinton got caught in the undertow of race. He dismissed Obama's triumph by saying that Jesse Jackson had won primaries in South Carolina, too.

Of course Clinton didn't mean the comment to be interpreted in a racial way. No one here ever does. It just happens.

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