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Jewish World Review Feb. 3, 2002 /11 Shevat 5764

Dave Shiflett

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Old Yeller: America misinterpreted Dean's scream

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com -- Much has been made of Howard Dean's "screech heard 'round the world." The greatest minds of journalism, politics, and science have spent almost two weeks now trying to figure out what it all about. Was dizzy Dean high on caffeine? Low on Prozac? Suffering some sort of horrendous flashback, perhaps attributable to a youthful ingestion of rogue psychedelics?

Down here in Dixie we knew exactly what he was up to: He was attempting a Rebel Yell. We knew he wasn't responding to the a**-whipping just administered by John Kerry, or the fact that he had been rolled by a slack-jawed trial lawyer. That was history.

Dean had his sights on South Carolina, and beyond that the southern white male vote. Unlike the Ketchup King, who has written off this region, Dean knows Bush can't be defeated without the help of Jane and Johnny Reb. Especially Johnny. So he was speaking directly to us, though of course in code.

Media and political experts are generally quick to point out when a candidate is speaking in code. That is especially true when a Republican is involved. When Ronald Reagan spoke of welfare queens, for instance, we were instructed that he was "speaking in code" to white racists. The same is true when Ron held forth on affirmative action. The fact is, Reagan barely got a word out edgewise that was not interpreted as being a coded message of a decidedly nefarious nature.

Dean was also speaking in code, but the experts didn't hear him. He might as well have been blowing a dog whistle. The reason is simple: The great minds of journalism, politics, and science know about as much about southern ways as they know about the intricacies of the Baptist religion.

Put another way, Dean was talking over their heads.


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Most of the pundits thought he was cracking up and was thus finished as a serious candidate (which would make him the second insane candidate in the race, along with Wesley Clark). "Howard Dean is done," said Fred Barnes. "He just seemed to go nuts," said Craig Crawford of the authoritative Hotline. Mike Barnicle — the Boston sage — said Dean had administered "A lethal self-injection." Another critic said Dean had "screamed like a squirrel who had just lost his nuts."

Those of us from the rustic regions know that a squirrel who has just lost his nuts screams much louder and longer than Dean did. Dean was not yelling in pain. He was rallying his troops, mustering his southern support, and hoping to discombobulate his enemies. Which, as it happens, perfectly describes the purpose of the Rebel Yell.

Shelby Foote, the great historian of the Civil War, quotes a Union infantryman who had heard the yell in all its traumatizing glory: It was, he said, "shrill, exultant, savage" — three words that perfectly describe the Dean emanation. Foote says the yell was similar to a "wildcat screech, foxhunt yip, banshee squall." According to a Confederate veteran it could only be properly delivered while charging the enemy, suggesting that the yell was powered both by a desire to kill and the knowledge that you might be on the receiving end up a musket volley before it had cleared your throat.

Most pundits insisted the yell was Dean's death rattle. But New Hampshire showed us that it helped arrest Dean's decline — and helped him close the gap between himself and Kerry. Clearly the yell had touched the souls of southern sympathizers in the Granite State, who turned out on Dean's behalf despite the suspicion that it was all for ultimate naught.

Indeed, no one can say if the Yell will be enough to swing the south for Dean. But there's no doubt that it's going to do him a lot more good than talking about Jesus. Members of the G-d, Guns, and Battle Flag constituency know Jesus personally. They have pictures of Him on their walls and in their wallets. They can quote him to the last jot and tittle. They know Dean is faking it. That's not necessarily an offensive act. Down here a guy will come by your house, start talking about Jesus, and suddenly try to sell you some vinyl siding.

But southerners are more impressed by the fact that Dean, unlike Kerry, actually has a pulse. He doesn't mind taking off his coat, punching the air, and delivering a banshee squall. He also surrounds himself with like-minded people. While many southerners might think Al Franken is about as funny as a compound fracture, we can't help but admire the way he bodyslammed an anti-Dean heckler the other day. Kerry's people, of course, would have given the heckler a time-out.

Dean breathed new life into his campaign his Rebel Yell. One almost hates to remind him it was the battle cry of a cause that came a cropper



JWR contributor Dave Shiflett writes from central Va. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2003, Dave Shiflett