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JIM LEHRER: The politics story: It began when Howard Dean said the Democratic Party must court white southerners who display the confederate flag on their pickups. The reaction came to a head last night, when he was questioned at a democratic presidential forum sponsored by CNN and “Rock the Vote.”
QUESTIONER: My question is for Governor Dean. I recently read a comment that you made where you said that you wanted to be the candidate for guys with confederate flags on their pickup trucks. When I read that comment, I was extremely offended. Could you explain to me how you plan on being sensitive to needs and issues regarding slavery and African Americans after making a comment of that nature?
HOWARD DEAN: Sure. ( Applause ) Martin Luther King said that it was his dream that the sons of slaveholders and the sons of slaves sit down around a table and make common good. I think we need to talk to white southern workers about how they vote, because when white people and black people and brown people vote together in this country, that’s the only time that we make social progress, and they need to come back to the Democratic Party.
QUESTIONER: Reverend Sharpton, I just want to point out, in the last couple days, earlier last week, you have called some of Governor Dean’s positions anti-black. It sounds very close to calling him racist.
REV. AL SHARPTON: No, I don’t… I don’t think the governor is a racist. I think some of his positions would have hurt us. But I think that doesn’t answer, governor, this young man’s question. ( Applause ) first of all… first of all, Martin Luther King said, “Come to the table of brotherhood.” You can’t bring a confederate flag to the table of brotherhood. (Applause) I don’t think you’re a bigot, but I think that is insensitive, and I think you ought to apologize to people for that. When Bill Clinton was found to be a member of a white-only country club, he apologized. You are not a bigot, but you appear to be too arrogant to say “I’m wrong” and go on. (Applause)
QUESTIONER: Governor Dean? (Applause continues)
HOWARD DEAN: We’re not going to win in this country, and even worse, Democrats, if we don’t have a big tent. You’re right, I am not a bigot. And Jesse Jackson, Jr., Endorsed me and has stood up for what I said. And I make no apologies for reaching out to poor white people.
REV. AL SHARPTON: But confederate flags is not for white people. And that sounds more like Stonewall Jackson than Jesse Jackson. ( Laughter ) and he’s… Jesse Jackson went down…
( applause ) Jesse Jackson went to South Carolina with all of us protesting the flag. The issue’s not poor southern whites. Most poor southern whites don’t wear a confederate flag, and you ought not try to stereotype that. ( Applause )
QUESTIONER: All right, let me bring Senator Edwards with his comments. Senator Edwards, in the last couple days you have been very critical of Governor Dean on this issue. And let me try to understand, are you basically saying that the votes of those who fly the confederate flag are too loathsome to even accept? And if so, are there any other groups whose votes you don’t want?
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, let me say, first of all, unless I missed something, Governor Dean still has not said he was wrong. Were you wrong, Howard? Were you wrong to say that?
HOWARD DEAN: No, I wasn’t, John Edwards, because people who vote, who fly the confederate flag, because I think they are wrong because I think the confederate flag is a racist symbol. But I think there are a lot of poor people who fly that flag because the republicans have been dividing us by race since 1968 with their southern race strategy.
I am tired of being divided by race in this country. I am tired of being divided by abortion, by gay rights. I want to go down to the South and talk to people who don’t make any more than anybody else up North but keep voting Republican against their own economic interests, and that’s what I am saying.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Well, let me… may I respond? ( Applause ) may I respond? And I want to respond to this young man’s questions. Because, let me tell you, the last thing we need in the south is somebody like you coming down and telling us what we need to do. ( Applause )
That’s the last thing in the world we need in the south. I grew up in the south. I grew up with the very people that you’re talking about. And what Al Sharpton just said is exactly right. The people that I grew up with, the vast majority of them, they don’t drive around with confederate flags on pickup trucks. ( Applause )
QUESTIONER: Governor Dean, you can respond, and then we’ll move on.
HOWARD DEAN: I’m not going to take a back seat to anybody in terms of fighting bigotry. I signed the… I’m the only person here that ever signed a bill that outlawed discrimination against gays and lesbians by giving them the same amount… ( cheers and applause ) and what I discovered… what I discovered is that the fear of people who opposed that bill, which is the majority of people in my state, was mostly based on ignorance. And we have to reach out to every single American. We can’t write… we don’t have to embrace the confederate flag, and I never suggested that we did. But we have to reach out to all disenfranchised people.
JIM LEHRER: Today at a campaign event in New York City Dean had this to say:
HOWARD DEAN: I do not condone the use of the flag of the confederate states of America. I do believe that this country needs to engage in a serious discussion about race, and that everyone must participate in that discussion. I started this discussion in a clumsy way.
This discussion will be painful, and I regret the pain that I may have made caused either to African American or southern white voters in the beginning of this discussion. But we need to have this discussion in an honest, open way. (Applause)
Since 1968, the Republican Party has embarked on a strategy of dividing white people from black people in the South, just as they were divided when Abraham Lincoln stood at this podium 150 years ago. That is intolerable, that is… ending that is what this campaign is about. I am determined to find a way to bring black Americans and white Americans, as Dr. King said, to the same table in common brotherhood.
I am also determined that we will not leave anyone behind in this discussion no matter what their color, no matter where they live. I understand Senator Edwards’ concern last night that I… that he not have people from the North going down and tell people in the South how to run their states. But we all need to understand that we are in this together. So I say to those… many of the people in the African community… African American community have supported what I have said over the past few days, because they understand what this is about. But some have not, and to those I deeply regret the pain that I may have caused.
Many of those supporters, many of our white supporters have understood, but to those who do not I regret the pain that I have caused. But I will tell you there is no easy way to do this, and that there will be pain as we discuss it. And we must face it together hand in hand as Dr. King and Abraham Lincoln asked us to do. ( Applause )