Howard Dean's Flag Flap

This is a partial transcript of The Big Story With John Gibson, November 5, 2003, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: For many in the black community, the Confederate flag (search) is a red flag, symbolizing all the landmines laid down for years in racial politics in the South. Reverend Al Sharpton certainly seemed to rattle Dean last night. The big question, Reverend, can Howard Dean be the Democratic candidate for African-Americans?

AL SHARPTON (D), PRESIDENT CANDIDATE: Well, I think that to give the signal that he sees something acceptable about people who carry Confederate flags is something that will in my judgment rub many Democrats and many Americans wrongly. On the one hand, we cannot call Trent Lott out on embracing Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixie campaign. We cannot call others out and then say that it's all right to act as though there's nothing wrong with carrying a Confederate flag, a flag that stands for lynching and other things. It's wrong.

GIBSON: Let's say that he had his foot in his mouth mentioning the Confederate flag, but the overall problem of appealing to people in the South who have gone over to the Republicans, can he do that? How would you recommend the Democrats do it? How would you do it?

SHARPTON: I would certainly recommend we do it. I would do it several ways. One, I would talk about the economic issues. I would talk about how the Republicans have divided us on race rather than looking at the commonality of the economic burdens that we have. But you cannot do that by raising a race issue like the flag, which offends the people who are already with you. You cannot build a big tent by offending the people already under the tent. Secondly, I would further organize, and register and galvanize those communities that are already inclined to support you, for example, African-American voter registration participating in nonpartisan trial.

In South Carolina, there are 208,000 unregistered Blacks alone. The Republicans just won the governor's race by 40,000 seats. There's a lot of untapped people that are not on the so-called conservative side that we have not galvanized, organized or registered. So there's a lot of ways of approaching the South without having to try and placate and identify with people that want to wear racist emblems.

GIBSON: Reverend, do you think there's something inherently flawed about Howard Dean or any candidate who won't say, I was wrong and backtrack off of a statement that has caused a lot of trouble?

SHARPTON: I think there is a problem. I don't know how deep it runs. But as I said during the debate, Bill Clinton, we challenged him during the '92 primaries about being a member of an exclusive white country club. He apologized and resigned. Jesse Jackson apologized for a misstatement said off the record that he wasn't really saying in a way that Dean said. There's nothing wrong with errors and apologizing. There is something wrong with insisting that people's sensitivities are out of step rather than maybe you rubbed them wrong. You must remember, this came up in the debate last night from a young man in the audience who said he was offended. This didn't come up from the other candidates. This young man was offended. And that ought to matter to them.

GIBSON: Reverend, before I run out of time with you, what about the issue of Howard Dean's money? He's now putting it up to his Internet supporters to vote on whether he should opt out of the federal system, which funds campaigns and go it alone on his own money. In the past, he said he would jump on any Democrat who did such a thing. And now he appears to be changing his mind. Should he enter the system, stay in the system, where he has to accept federal funds?

SHARPTON: I think that we all should do what we say. I think we have to beware of people that have a pattern of continuing to change things. I also am disturbed when I read in "The New York Times," for example, today that if he and Kerry does that, this may ruin the whole campaign reform- public finance system. I think that's bad for progressives, that's bad for people everywhere, because that renders us only able to have wealthy people run for office. And that's not good for America.

GIBSON: Lastly, Reverend Sharpton, a new poll from Pew Research saying today that 2004 shapes up to be as evenly divided as the year 2000 for the presidential race, and that both sides are more hardened in their positions than they were in 2000. What does that mean for this race in 2004?

SHARPTON: It means that we're going to see -- in my judgment – a very clear choice in America. I just think that in order for us to get the right choice, the Democrats will have to be firm as to what they represent. From the preliminary view of those numbers, it seems that the Republicans are a lot more firm on where they are than we on the Democratic side are. And that might be because you can't send a blurred message. You have to send a clear message to get a clear response.

GIBSON: Reverend Al Sharpton, thank you very much. Appreciate you coming on.

SHARPTON: Thank you.

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