Duke University Alumni Magazine

Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture

By Peter Applebome. New York: Times Books, 1996. 400 pp. $25.

egardless of November's election outcome, the 104th Congress certainly left its mark on the country, trouncing President Clinton's "big-government" health-care proposal and passing welfare reform. And as Peter Applebome '71 points out in Dixie Rising: How the South Is Shaping American Values, Politics, and Culture, the conservative revolution was led by Southerners: Speaker Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi, and House Majority Leader Dick Armey and Majority Whip Tom DeLay of Texas.

     "The power of the Republican South gives Southerners and Southern interests an ability to shape public perceptions and national politics to a degree they have not had since the Civil War," writes Applebome, a correspondent for The New York Times who has covered the South for two decades. Conservatives from William Bennett to Ralph Reed extol antebellum values such as chivalry, honor, and duty, while Americans in states from Montana to Maine embrace notions and lifestyles long associated with the South: agrarianism, religious fundamentalism, and, most importantly, states' rights.

     Applebome traces the evolution of this phenomenon and begins by making the obligatory points. Warm weather and air-conditioning, higher standards of living, and strong anti-union sentiment have drawn domestic and foreign investment to Dixie since the Sixties. Between 1970 and 1990, the eleven states of the old Confederacy grew by 20 million people, twice the national growth. Cities like Nashville experienced negative unemployment rates, importing workers from Puerto Rico. Nashville, along with Atlanta, Charlotte, and sister cities, represent the New South--a phrase, Applebome points out, touted since Reconstruction but now synonymous with optimism, entrepreneurial spirit, and good- natured, old-fashioned boosterism.

     "One thing that always defined the South was the pain, pessimism, and sense of defeat that came from being the only part of the country to know the experience of losing a war and being occupied by the enemy," argues Applebome. "Now, it's the North and even mighty California that are adrift and confused, fundamentally pessimistic about the future."

     There is a serpent, alas, slithering among the kudzu in this new Eden. The South, like the nation, has yet to come to terms with the question of race. Whites and blacks may

     seem to get along better than ever in Dixie, but the issue of race relations remains unresolved and potentially explosive. The triumph of Southern politics, a victory that sprung like a phoenix from the ashes of the civil-rights movement, only underscores the problem.

     "Long before anyone talked of angry white males or Reagan Democrats or the forgotten middle class, long before Rush Limbaugh and a host of imitators turned hatred of liberals and elitists and government bureaucrats into the background noise of America, George Wallace tapped into the fears and resentments of white America in a way that has defined the political landscape and the critical voters ever since," writes Applebome. He believes the nation's "political center of gravity" is much the same today as it was in 1965.

     In the book's most interesting chapter, Applebome recounts Wallace's career and the transformation of the South from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold represented by Gingrich. If Wallace has become the feeble penitent and born-again advocate for tolerance and understanding, Gingrich has become his doppelganger, emerging from the shadows to play the provocateur. Gingrich, writes Applebome, is "way too smart to use the old vocabulary of race, but this is the sotto voce Wallaceism for the Nineties, the language of Jack and Jock on the Internet and talk radio, that sells as well outside the South as inside." To underscore his point, Applebome notes that Wallace also preached "the gospel of pissed-off-ness" with a litany of lower taxes and less crime--just like those guys on Capitol Hill today.

     Applebome is profoundly ambivalent--to put it politely--about Southern conservatives. Enamored of the South and its colorful history, he nevertheless is suspicious of white males who are, at worst, hatemongers like "gentleman racist" Ed Fields, publisher of a white supremist newspaper in Cobb County (Gingrich's district), or more likely insensitive "neo-Cons" who literally whitewash the past. "The bottom line is that other than the occasional tributes to blacks who fought for the Confederacy," Applebome says, "neo-Cons view history and the past through a totally white prism, as if the view of what constituted Southern culture in 1861 holds true in 1996 as well." Racist blacks make an appearance in his book, but by and large African-Americans like those who return to Selma, Alabama, for the thirtieth anniversary of the Bloody Sunday police riot are far more sympathetic characters.

     "It's hard to even talk to kids now," says Cleophus Hobbs, one such activist who turned to community organizing in the Seventies, sounding a note of nostalgia familiar to any parent no matter his or her race. "They don't have any purpose other than to make a fast dollar, and they don't care how they do it. Some of these kids would be as likely to kill you as to kill a snake."

     Applebome fills the book with interviews of people like Fields and Hobbs, describing at length their brand of baseball cap and cigar, the outfits their wives wear to church, the pictures framed on their office walls. Most of these details, paragraphs of them, serve no purpose other than to pad a book that originated in a series of articles in The New York Times. More annoying, Applebome fails to edit the transcripts, so that we are forced to wade through pages of mundane chatter, Studs Turkel-style. Mark Gibbs, for example, is a contractor and born-again Christian who, we are told, is not sure Republicans "know what they're doing, but he feels he pays too much taxes." With insights like this, who needs editors?

     Applebome has a good story to tell and tells it when he stays close to facts. Unfortunately, he muddies it up by intruding himself into his study, popping up in every chapter with gratuitous remarks ("I happen to love Charlotte É"). His chapter on Nashville, a town with more than its share of colorful and eccentric characters, makes fun reading, but too many of the people in Dixie Rising are like contemporary country-western songs--homogenized, standard fare. The book is worth looking at as a study of Southern politics by an outsider, but speed-read through the "up-close-and-personal" stuff--it's too much like watching the Atlanta Summer Olympics on television.

--Rex Roberts

Rex Roberts is a freelance writer and editor based in Brooklyn, New York.

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