A little more than three years ago, David M. Beasley, then governor of South Carolina, announced that it was time to stop flying the Confederate battle flag over the state capitol. What yours truly said in turn was, Hurrah!: ". . . The legislature probably will approve" Beasley's proposal, I wrote, "so the flag will come down, to be relegated to Confederate memorials on the Capitol grounds," and perhaps "the Civil War will at last come to an end."

Which shows you just how much I know. The battle flag still flies over the capitol in Columbia, prominently and defiantly, and South Carolinians are still squabbling over whether it ought to be there. Now they've managed to suck the national Republican Party into the argument, in the process inducing a couple of men who would be president to make fools of themselves in a most unbecoming fashion.

It is all politics, not so pure and not so simple. In the contest between George W. Bush and John McCain for the Republican presidential nomination, three early primaries almost certainly hold the key: Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Each is important in its own way, but South Carolina is especially so because what can politely be called the hard right wing is exceptionally strong there. That faction may have little effect on the general election in November, but at the GOP convention it will be influential out of all proportion to its real numbers.

Which means that to get the Republican nomination and advance to the general election, a candidate may find it difficult to resist the temptation to appease the hard right. In South Carolina one can barely distinguish the ideological hard right from the remnants of moonbeams and magnolia racism with which the state is plagued, i.e., a Republican state senator named Arthur Ravenel who recently called the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People the "National Association of Retarded People" and then, according to this newspaper, "apologized to retarded people for lumping them in the same category as the NAACP."

So here we have Bush, dismissing Ravenel's remarks as "unfortunate," made in "an emotional debate," and declining to recommend that he apologize: "It's up to the senator to do that." So here, too, we have McCain, who earlier had called the Confederate flag "a symbol of racism and slavery," scurrying off into a corner: "As to how I view the flag, I understand both sides. Some view it as a symbol of slavery. Others view it as a symbol of heritage. Personally, I see the battle flag as a symbol of heritage. I have ancestors who fought for the Confederacy. None of them owned slaves. I believe they fought honorably. I continue to hope that the people of South Carolina will be able to resolve this emotional issue in an atmosphere of mutual respect."

He's got to be kidding. The day South Carolina's NAACP finds common ground with the racists and/or ancestor-worshipers who fly the Confederate battle flag will be the day icebergs float in the Pee Dee River. This is not to say that emotions are equally irrational on both sides. Quite to the contrary. Black South Carolinians are absolutely right to regard the flag over the state capitol as a calculated insult, an evocation not of Rhett Butler or of McCain's heroic ancestors but of the slavery in which their own ancestors were held and of the de jure discrimination that followed in Reconstruction and the Jim Crow era. They know that the decision to fly the flag was made in 1962 as a rebuke to the civil rights movement, and they know that it has been just that ever since.

But to certain white South Carolinians, men and women in whose hearts the Lost Cause still burns so feverishly that it might as well be 1861, the flag has become a wildly, indeed insanely emotional matter. Trotting out the most shopworn Ol' Dixie sentimentality as if it had just dripped fresh off the pen of Thomas Dixon, author of "The Clansman" and other classics of literary bigotry, they whine about the heroes of the Confederacy and insist that the flag be accepted as a tribute to them. Racism? Why, they say, the flag has nothing to do with race at all.

The truth is that in this context it has everything to do with race. Yes, beyond doubt many men fought bravely and honorably for the Confederacy, and some of them (Robert E. Lee being the most notable example) fought out of loyalty to their home states rather than out of any passion for slavery. But that is not why the Confederate battle flag flies over the capitol of South Carolina. It is there in contempt for and defiance of the civil rights movement and those men and women who served in it. To claim otherwise is either self-delusion or mendacity.

So here is a pop quiz for George W. Bush and John McCain: Just how much is the Republican nomination worth? Is it worth currying the favor of racists? Is it worth abandoning all pretense of conviction and blowing with whatever wind happens to be strongest at the moment? Is it worth turning one's back on those who fought in a cause far nobler than the one mourned in South Carolina?

Apparently it is. That will not surprise many who have followed the career of Bush, to whom "conviction" seems an alien notion. But McCain seemed to promise more. Until he started to smell the roses, that is.

Jonathan Yardley's e-mail address is yardley@twp.com.

Chronicles will return.

CAPTION: Arthur Ravenel, a South Carolina legislator who recently called NAACP the "National Association of Retarded People."