WASHINGTON — Washington. -- It was supposed to be a social and political no-no. You just couldn't put two Southern white men on a presidential ticket and hope to win.
I thought about this as I listened to the victory speeches of Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Al Gore of Tennessee -- especially when Mr. Gore noted that they had erased an old stigma and made geography irrelevant. I was moved when he pledged that the Clinton-Gore administration would make race, gender and religion irrelevant and let diversity become a strength of America.
Watching these two winners, no one can now say "Southerners" with a stereotyped tone of condescension, even opprobrium, as was the case for generations. Messrs. Clinton and Gore are not the bigots of my Tennessee boyhood whose hate lists put blacks first, Jews second, Catholics third and other "furriners" close behind. The American people have voted for two highly educated, extremely intelligent, socially responsible men whose lives and promises rise above geographical, social and racial prejudices.
I listened to them and thought of the reality that only a Republican such as Richard Nixon could have opened relations with Communist China. He and others had for so long declared that Democrats were "soft on communism" that no Democrat, not even a Kennedy or Lyndon Johnson, would dare offer any gesture of friendship to the People's Republic of China.
Two Southern white men, more than any other leaders, can lift America out of the morass of class hatred, death-dealing racial rage and general social polarization that has over 12 years given us some of the meanest streets in the world.
We have had 12 years of a racial-social nightmare, produced not by men from the antebellum South, but by a Californian, Ronald Reagan, and a New England Yankee aristocrat, George Bush. They dredged votes out of hostilities. Remember that Mr. Reagan went eight years refusing even to talk to the legitimate black leaders of America. He bred a cadre of black sycophants, quislings, sellouts. Mr. Bush extended the policy of divisiveness, of polarization, even while pretending, perhaps convincing himself, that he was for civil rights, racial equality and a "gentler, kinder" land of brotherhood.
How ironic that two men from the old slave states are now pledging to undo the damage of those two presidents who did so much to rekindle the destructive spirit of the Klan, and such spinoffs as the Skinheads, the advocates of "Aryan supremacy" and more.
We talk so much about a president's "bully pulpit" that many Americans may dismiss it as a trifling cliche. But I know that the voices from the White House move a nation. I remember the Kennedy and Johnson years when White House example changed profoundly the social life of the nation's capital from blind Jim Crow to social integration based on mutual respect.
I got goosebumps listening to Mr. Gore talk about honoring diversity and making skin color or gender irrelevant. He was saying to me that the Clinton-Gore administration will not forget that America is made up of Mayflower descendants, but also of people whose forbears came on slave ships from Africa, freedom boats from Cuba and Vietnam, flights away from tyranny in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, the old Soviet Union.
How exhilarating it is that two sons of the American South bid to become the symbols of a spirit of justice that can uplift all mankind.
Carl T. Rowan is a syndicated columnist.