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Part One: Taking a Little Drive

Music: Play a recording by Al and Retha Webb

To truly understand America, you have to know the mind of the South. President Bush gets it. He says he understands Southerners and their values. And he did carry every single southern state in 2000.

When the president speaks of the South he's referring to white Southerners, the region's overwhelming majority. It's not just the top Republican who gets it. Back in the day when he was the Democratic front-runner, Howard Dean got in big trouble for acknowledging this group's importance.

If you want to learn about the mind of the South, it's best to get in your car and take a little drive -- but not along the interstates. It's easy to miss the South if you do.

The places where the old white Southern culture still thrives are not part of interstate America with its culture of gas stations, chain motels and strip malls.

If you're scooting west through the Florida panhandle on I-10, you're likely to bypass Marianna, a spit and a holler from the Alabama and Georgia lines. But just a mile or so north of the interstate, old U.S. Highway 90 is a different world. The South as a region and a culture presents questions even to those born into it and who study it, like the author of "The Most Southern Place on Earth," University of Georgia professor of history James Cobb. Professor Cobb notes that statistically the South today is very much like the rest of America. But it still feels different. The difference can be found in dichotomies like the region's reputation for being the most hospitable part of the country while at the same time it is the most homicidal by far.

There is another fact that makes people from outside feel a difference. The sense among so many white Southerners that they represent some purer idea of America.

For an illustration of what Cobb is talking about you can drive about a mile down Highway 90 in Marianna to the Caravan Restaurant. A cinderblock building, which is the current meeting place of the Marianna coffee club. Every weekday morning for 42 years the club has got together to gossip and talk politics.

The white Southern attitudes on display at first meet a Northerner's expectations. The local car dealer, Bill Hopkins has a bit of needle for a Yankee public radio reporter. Without prompting he echoes Cobb's statement. "This is America right here. Not what goes on in the rest of the country."

Top dawg at the breakfast table is Dick Hinson, 78, who rescues his guest from Bill Hopkins' attentions and invites some of the older members of the group to his end of the table to talk about their changing world and worldview. The pure old South is getting harder and harder to find Hinson acknowledges. Real political influence is gathered at this table. Tommy Grainger, an elder of the First Baptist Church, knows it. "There's not a single politician within a hunnert miles that wants to run for office who doesn't come here first to get our blessing." Hinson echoes the sentiment. "They all want to get hands laid on 'em by the coffee club." The politics of the coffee club's membership reflect the trends of the last 50 years in American history. Most of these men have voted for Republican presidential candidates since Barry Goldwater and since the Reagan era they have been card-carrying Republicans.

Merle Black says, Reagan realigned the white conservatives. Today it is almost impossible to find a conservative Democrat left among white voters in the South.

This support cuts across class lines. As Howard Dean pointed out, white working class and middle class Southerners vote Republican against their own economic interests. Merle Black, who grew up in east Texas, says this attitude is based in an observable fact: white southerners are not bothered by inequalities whether they be racial or economic. Next...

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