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The Faux-Bubba factor

The national media may call Bill Clinton and Al Gore the Bubba ticket, but as any Southerner can tell you, these guys are hardly Bubbas. Bubbas don't go to Harvard and Yale. If a Bubba ever gave Oxford a second thought, he'd probably think of it as "the Ole Miss of England." No, Clinton and Gore are Faux Bubbas _ Fake Good Ol' Boys, Counterfeit Crackers, Weekend Billybobs.

But that could work for them because, after all, this is the year of the Bubba Wannabe. In politics, we've had Ross Perot, the simple country billionaire, and George Bush, the high WASP preppie with his pork rinds and horseshoes. We're also seeing a phenomenal growth of country music, tobacco-chewing Hollywood agents driving Range Rovers down Sunset Boulevard and two-step-dancing investment bankers buying pickup trucks and ranches in Montana. The Faux Bubba has straddled the bar stool of America's Achy Breaky heart.

For years, my comic strip, "Kudzu," has chronicled the rise of the Faux Bubba, along with the decline of the authentic Good Ol' Boy against the backdrop of the homogenization, gentrification and urbanization of my native region into something called the Sun Belt. One of my characters, Uncle Dub, runs a service station and shoots buckshot at joggers, and was designated an endangered species by the National Endowment for the Preservation of Indigenous Folk Cultures. He's the last of the Good Ol' Boys, a true Bubba. And if there's one thing he can't stand, it's Faux Bubbas. "Cat Hats and blow dryers don't mix!" he declares defiantly.

Uncle Dub would tell you there are two kinds of Faux Bubba. Al Gore's kind represents the more complicated Bubba Wannabes, like Bush and Perot. Born to wealth and privilege, refinement and the perks of civilization, they don the bib overall persona, the rustic coloration and plumage of the Good Ol' Boy, as a kind of camouflage to disguise their advantages. They are shrewd politicians who know that Americans root for the underdog and can be as unforgiving of life's winners as its losers.

In this way, the Bush, Gore and Perot brand of Faux Bubba is closer to the yuppie novelists, actors, news anchors and Wall Street brokers flocking to buy ranches in Montana or Wyoming, to herd cattle and drive Range Rovers and go white-water canoeing. This kind of Bubba pose is a testosterone thing. Bridling under the demands of civilization, cut off from their senses, battered by the women's movement, longing for tribal identity, but too proud to beat drums and weep openly at seminars, they are restoring their masculinity the only way they know how _ by buying it. This Faux Bubba lifestyle offers all the perks and bennies, like dipping snuff and chewing tobacco, with none of the unpleasant cultural downside, like getting laid off from your job or being cut up in a knife fight.

Bill Clinton may not be a true Bubba, but he is a true redneck, and like me is just a generation or two removed from the mill villages and trailer parks, trying to assimilate like the children of immigrants, glossing over our ethnicity and trying to "pass" in the predominant culture. Clinton never knew his real daddy, who was killed in a car wreck. His mamma's been married five times and she buried three husbands. His step-daddy was a drunk, his brother went to prison. Hell, Bill Clinton's life is a country song.

His grandfather ran a small-town grocery store in Arkansas. My grandparents were Carolina textile workers, called "lintheads" back then. By the grace of Adolf Hitler, my father escaped the mills. I was a military brat, reared in small towns across the South _ some of them so backward even the Episcopalians handled snakes. Clinton and I grew up on the historical fault line between the Old Confederacy and the New South, between Dixie and the Sun Belt. As Southerners, we are defined as much by our pasts as our presents, as much by where we came from as where we are going.

We grew up in a time and place when it cost you something to be right on race and to question the war in Vietnam. For our generation of young Southerners, going against the grain in a part of the country where white supremacy and military supremacy were articles of faith was a painful, gut-wrenching rite of passage that turned us inside out, defined us morally and made us who we are today. We weren't spoon-fed our values and ideals. We had to earn them. They are not just in our brains now; they're in our bones.

The modern media age and synthetic mass culture waged war on our Bubba genes. They were stalked and assaulted, educated and refined, gentrified and upwardly mobilized into submission. But the final skirmishes of Antietam and Gettysburg, Chickamauga and Chancellorsville are still being fought on the battlefields of our souls.

We're still recognizable, though. We're the ones with the designer bib overalls and the gunracks in our BMWs. We sometimes confuse sushi with bait, and we sip our Evian from an old Mason jar. Brought up on grits and barbecue, we now make our own pasta and dine on soyburger and calamari. No matter how hard we try, we still can't use "summer" as a verb, and when we say "ciao" we really mean "Y'all come see us now, y'heah?"

But, as Clinton has seen, being a Bubba today can be risky. In this age of political correctness, we white, male, heterosexual Southerners represent everything wrong with the 20th century. We are white when black is beautiful, male when sisterhood is powerful, straight when gay is good. We are the wrong color, the wrong race, the wrong sexual orientation and we speak with the wrong accent. A National Opinion Research Center survey comparing images of five ethnic groups _ Jews, blacks, Asians, Hispanics and white Southerners _ found white Southerners perceived as dumber, lazier and more prone to violence than "white Americans."

We didn't need a poll to tell us that. Anti-Southern bias is always lurking below the surface in the national media. Hollywood knows that if you want to make someone a villain or a dimwit, give him a Southern accent. We learn the codes of Northern intolerance the way blacks learn to decipher and interpret the codes of racism. The malign Morse by which it is communicated (".

.

. you know, Clinton is smart, too!") is as recognizable to us as the phrases "welfare chiselers" or "articulate black man" are to African Americans.

But, as Sen. Sam Ervin proved during the Senate Watergate hearings, there are advantages to being condescended to and underestimated. Ol' Slick Willie must have been aware of the unconscious bigotry against white Southerners when he selected another Bubba American as his running mate because he's sure made it work for him.

By stacking the ticket with Southerners, he changed the question on everybody's mind from, "Did he commit adultery?" to "Has he committed incest?" The answer is "No" and Clinton soars in the polls. Slick, all right. And he sho'nuff didn't learn that at Yale.

Doug Marlette, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editorial cartoonist for Newsday, is the author of Even White Boys Get the Blues (Times Books-Random House) to be published this month.

Distributed by the Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service

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