Should the Confederate battle flag, to many a symbol of racism and slavery, fly atop the South Carolina state house? Texas Gov. George W. Bush and Arizona Sen. John S. McCain, the two front-runners in the GOP primary there Saturday, have been frantically evading the question for weeks.
Bush, asked repeatedly about the flag on the campaign trail, says he thinks South Carolinians should decide the issue for themselves. McCain, days after calling the flag offensive in January, changed his mind and in a terse statement said he saw the flag as "a symbol of heritage," despite the fact that the flag was not flown over the state house until 1962, when South Carolina politicians wished to mark their resistance to the civil rights movement during a Civil War centennial.
Neither candidate has mustered the courage to risk Republican votes in the primary, an early contest that both candidates consider crucially important, by denouncing the flag. These are men who want to be president, and their gutless pandering on such a clear-cut issue is disturbing. The flag's supporters claim it is a reminder of South Carolina's heritage. They are right. The flag is a reminder of a history of slavery and prejudice--something no state government should honor, and certainly something no president should condone.
The two Democratic candidates have both recognized this and come out against the flag, and the governor of the state is calling for a compromise to move it from the state house. Bush and McCain would be wise to follow their lead. Until they do, both will suffer nationally for a short-term political advantage in South Carolina. Bush is running as a "compassionate conservative" reaching out to minorities, but is unable to condemn a racist emblem. Meanwhile, McCain runs the risk that his carefully crafted image as the principled maverick of the Republican race will begin to look a little fake as he dances around the flag controversy.
Forty years after it was flown to protest the extension of civil rights to African-Americans, the flag is still an embarrassing reminder of what to most people is a shameful past. Men who want to be president of the United States, of all people, must have the courage to condemn it.