' Roger Simon
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Jewish World Review Nov. 4, 2003 / 9 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

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Just buzz me

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com | My BlackBerry began buzzing Saturday afternoon. For those of you unfamiliar with it, a BlackBerry is a device that expands your workday from 12 to 18 hours and your work week from five to seven days.

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A BlackBerry automatically forwards e-mail from your office to a handheld device that you can carry anywhere. Which means the weekends are no longer an escape from the office.

Political campaigns moved quickly to exploit the potential of the BlackBerry. In the past, campaigns had difficulty reaching large numbers of reporters on the weekends. E-mails, faxes, even phone calls were largely ineffective, because reporters were not at their offices to receive them.

Now, however, all a political campaign need do is send out an e-mail, reasonably confident that paranoid reporters, who are afraid of missing anything, have their BlackBerries turned on all weekend long.

And most of us do, I am afraid. Which is why the first Battle of the BlackBerry was able to take place on Saturday.

The opening salvo came from U.S. Rep. Richard Gephardt, D-Mo., who expressed shock, outrage and dismay with a quote former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean had given the Des Moines Register. The quote had appeared the same Saturday. (Everything is very quick these days. Nobody has much time to think before they react.)

Here is the quote: " 'I still want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks,' Howard Dean said Friday in a telephone interview from New Hampshire. 'We can't beat George Bush unless we appeal to a broad cross-section of Democrats.' " Dean was responding to questions about guns and gun control.

Well, Dick Gephardt was absolutely outraged. "I don't want to be the candidate for guys with Confederate flags in their pickup trucks," he said in his e-mail. "I will win the Democratic nomination because I will be the candidate for the guys with American flags in their pickup trucks."

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Which is a pretty nifty line, whether he came up with it or not.

While I was absorbing that, my BlackBerry began buzzing again. This time, it was an e-mail from U.S. Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "Howard Dean is justifying his pandering to the NRA by saying his opposition to an assault weapons ban allows him to pander to lovers of the Confederate flag. 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."

Another nifty line.

Within minutes, I got buzzed again, this time with Dean defending himself. (How do the various campaigns get the e-mails of the other campaigns? Could reporters be passing them along?)

"I want people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags and vote Democratic — because the need for quality healthcare, jobs, and a good education knows no racial boundaries," Dean said. "The dividing of working people by race has been a cornerstone of Republican politics for the last three decades — starting with Richard Nixon. For my fellow Democratic opponents to sink to this level is really tragic."

But before this tragedy could sink in, my BlackBerry went off again. This time it was from U.S. Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., the first Southerner to buzz into the fray.

"What Howard Dean said today was nothing short of offensive," Edwards said. "Democrats from every wing of the party understand what that flag symbolizes. And when a politician embraces one of the most divisive symbols in America, it is offensive to every American. Some of the greatest civil rights leaders, white and black, have come from the South. To assume that southerners who drive trucks would embrace this symbol is offensive."

Things were really heating up, when former Gen. Wesley Clark, also a Southerner, buzzed me.

"The Confederate flag flies in the face of our most deeply-held American values diversity, equality and inclusion," Clark said. "As someone who led men and women of all backgrounds in the United States military, I believe that the only flag we should fly is the one that brings us together the Stars and Stripes and that the Confederate flag should never, ever be flown on public buildings."

Pretty soon, Rev. Al Sharpton BlackBerried me, too. He expressed shock and outrage in his unique way, saying, "If I were ever to say that I wanted to be the candidate for guys with "Swastikas", I would be asked to leave the race and one cannot take these associations lightly".

Next came Joe Lieberman's campaign director Craig Smith (it being the Jewish Sabbath, Lieberman, himself, was not commenting directly) who said: "Governor Dean ought to be more careful about what he says. It is irresponsible and reckless to loosely talk about one of the most divisive, hurtful symbols in American history. The last thing the Democratic party needs is a nominee who will regularly make these kind of mistakes."

One does not know what to make of all this. Dean points that he first talked about the Confederate flag at a February meeting of the Democratic National Committee, in which he said: "White folks in the South who drive pick-up trucks with Confederate flag decals on the back ought to be voting with us because their kids don't have health insurance either, and their kids need better schools too."

And nobody got upset at him then. But that statement was more nuanced than the quote that appeared Saturday and in his follow-up e-mail, Dean did say that he wanted "people with Confederate flags on their trucks to put down those flags," which is something he had not said before.

By Sunday, the e-mails had stopped, but newspapers carried stories about the dust-up and by Monday it was all over the cable news shows.

The first Battle of the BlackBerry had done its work, transforming a small, regional news item into a national melee.

The solution? Candidates could speak with greater care. Or other candidates could react with a greater sense of understanding and charity.

Or we could all turn off our BlackBerries on the weekends.

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