COLUMBIA, S.C. -- In 2003, when Howard Dean named "guns, God and gays" as Southern obsessions and said he wanted to work for the white guys with Confederate flag stickers on their pickup trucks, Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware must have seen Jesus.
Now he's gone one better. To the litany of political pandering, Mr. Biden has added a new invocation: slavery. As in, "Hey! I'm from a slave state, too!"
Those weren't his precise words, but Mr. Biden, who is considering a run for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has been working hard lately to liberate his inner bubba, twice mentioning that his home state was once a slave state.
Mr. Biden is but the most recent in a long line of pretenders to grits, but he may be the first to invoke slavery for political points. His first reference came during an interview last summer with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday. Mr. Wallace asked Mr. Biden how a "Northeastern liberal" could compete in conservative Southern states against someone like former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner (at the time a possible contender).
Mr. Biden replied: "My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state has the eighth-largest black population in the country."
'Course, ever'body knows, Southerners start their days with a bucket o' grits, a gay-bashin' blessin' and a few bars of "Ol' times they ain't fergottin."
Well, maybe five or six do. And they're all apparently employed by some central casting group that rounds up "typical Southerners" whenever TV crews venture outside the Beltway for man-on-the-street interviews out yonder.
Mr. Biden's second testimonial as a born-again Southerner came last week while he was visiting South Carolina. Speaking before Columbia's mostly Republican Rotary Club, Mr. Biden reminded his audience of his slave-state heritage and hinted that Delaware's alliance with the North was merely an accident of geography. Delaware was a "slave state that fought beside the North," he said. "That's only because we couldn't figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way."
Watching politicians play redneck is always embarrassing. Whether it's dropping in on NASCAR, saying "y'all" or confessing one's love for Randy Travis (but not the Dixie Chicks), that dog don't hunt.
During the last presidential race, for instance, John Kerry went goose-hunting in Ohio to demonstrate his good ol' boy-ness - but blew the hoped-for effect by wearing brand-new camos. Not done.
With Mr. Biden's wince-inducing mention of slavery as a way to establish his Southern bona fides, I think we can safely say that politics has jumped the shark, tipped the point and perfected the storm. Bubba is now a cliche of a cliche of a cliche.
Of course, no one seriously thinks that Mr. Biden was touting slavery. More likely he was trying to say something friendly to his audience, as in: "I may be from a state north of here, but I love South Carolina, and I'll say any fool thing to get your vote."
That the audience responded favorably is neither surprising nor necessarily promising. Southerners are relentlessly polite, and Mr. Biden - despite his ill-chosen words - is charming.
The problem when you're running for leader of the free world, however, is that charm isn't enough. You have to get the words right. President Bush has ended for all time any notion that choosing - or inventing - the wrong word is a quaint idiosyncrasy.
Words matter. What also matters - not just to Southerners - is authenticity. There's no surer way to lose the public's confidence than to pretend to be something you're not. The real McCoy can always spot a decoy.
And a political fake is a dead duck.
Kathleen Parker's syndicated column appears Fridays in The Sun. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Clarence Page's column, which usually appears Fridays, ran yesterday.