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Sen. George Voinovich and the GOP as a Party of the South

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By Kathleen Parker
Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Southern writer Walker Percy liked to poke fun at Ohioans in his novels, just to even things out a bit.

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"Usually Mississippians and Georgians are getting it from everybody, and Alabamians," he once explained to an interviewer. "So, what's wrong with making smart-aleck remarks about Ohio? Nobody puts Ohio down. Why shouldn't I put Ohio down?"

Percy, the genial genius, laughed at his own remark.

Now, apparently, it's the Buckeye State's turn to poke back. In a fusillade of pique, Ohio Sen. George Voinovich charged that Southerners are what's wrong with the Republican Party.

"We got too many Jim DeMints and Tom Coburns," he told an interviewer with the Columbus Dispatch, referring to GOP senators from South Carolina and Oklahoma. "It's the Southerners. They get on TV and go 'errrr, errrrr.' People hear them and say, 'These people, they're Southerners. The party's being taken over by Southerners. What the hell they got to do with Ohio?' "

Down South, people are trying to figure out what "errrr, errrrr" means. Jack Bass, author of eight books about social and political change in the South, speculated in an e-mail that Voinovich really meant grrrr, grrrrr, as in "growling canines whose bark scares more than do Obama's purrs, especially with the Dow at a nine-month high."

Whatever Voinovich's sound effects were intended to convey, his meaning was clear enough: Those ignorant, right-wing, Bible-thumping rednecks are ruining the party.

Alas, Voinovich was not entirely wrong.

Not all Southern Republicans are wing nuts. Nor does the GOP have a monopoly on ignorance or racism. And, the South, for all its sins, is also lush with beauty, grace and mystery. Nevertheless, it is true that the GOP is fast becoming regionalized below the Mason-Dixon line and increasingly associated with some of the South's worst ideas.

It is not helpful (or surprising) that "birthers" -- conspiracy theorists who have convinced themselves that Barack Obama is not a native son -- have assumed kudzu qualities among Republicans in the South. In a poll commissioned by the liberal blog Daily Kos, participants were asked: "Do you believe that Barack Obama was born in the United States of America or not?"

Hefty majorities in the Northeast, the Midwest and the West believe Obama was born in the United States. But in the land of cotton, where old times are not by God forgotten, only 47 percent believe Obama was born in America and 30 percent aren't sure.

Southern Republicans, it seems, have seceded from sanity.

Though Voinovich's views may be shared by others in the party, it's a tad late -- not to mention ungrateful -- to indict the South. Republicans have been harvesting Southern votes for decades from seeds strategically planted during the civil rights era. When Lyndon B. Johnson predicted in 1965 that the Voting Rights Act meant the South would go Republican for the next 50 years, he wasn't just whistling Dixie.

A telling anecdote recounted by Pat Buchanan to New Yorker writer George Packer last year captures the dark spirit that still hovers around the GOP. In 1966 Buchanan and Richard Nixon were at the Wade Hampton Hotel in Columbia, S.C., where Nixon worked a crowd into a frenzy: "Buchanan recalls that the room was full of sweat, cigar smoke, and rage; the rhetoric, which was about patriotism and law and order, 'burned the paint off the walls.' As they left the hotel, Nixon said, 'This is the future of this Party, right here in the South.' "

That same rage was on display again in the fall of 2008, but this time the frenzy was stimulated by a pretty gal with a mocking little wink. Sarah Palin may not have realized what she was doing, but Southerners weaned on Harper Lee heard the dog whistle.

The curious Republican campaign of 2008 may have galvanized a conservative Southern base -- including many who were mostly concerned with the direction Democrats would take the country -- but it also repelled others who simply bolted and ran the other way. Whatever legitimate concerns the GOP may historically have represented were suddenly overshadowed by a sense of a resurgent Old South and all the attendant pathologies of festering hate and fear.

What the GOP is experiencing now, one hopes, are the death throes of that 50-year spell that Johnson foretold. But before the party of the Great Emancipator can rise again, Republicans will have to face their inner Voinovich and drive a stake through the heart of old Dixie.

kathleenparker@washpost.com


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