Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Yankee, Dixie, and Junior

I was born and raised in Chicago, but I've lived south of the Mason-Dixon Line since I was twenty-one. Even growing up on the shores of Lake Michigan, I wasn't far removed from the South on my mother's side; her mom was from Georgia and her father hailed from Alabama.

Largely because of this aspect of my life, I'm quite fascinated with comparisons and contrasts between North and South. Currently I'm reading The White House Looks South by William E. Leuchtenburg, a study of the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Lyndon Johnson and how they shaped--and were shaped by--what went on in Dixie. It's a remarkable book and I'm learning a lot. One quibble: when I'm reading a nonfiction book, I tend to peek at the final page before I've finished the volume. As such, I was stunned by the last sentence of the text: "In sum, the South in the twenty-first century--indeed the South on Lyndon Johnson's final day in office in 1973--is a very different place from the South Franklin Roosevelt found when he got off the train in a rundown Georgia village in 1923" (p. 418). How on earth did the wrong ending date for LBJ's presidency make it past the editor? The Texan left the White House in 1969, not 1973, which in fact is the year he died.

For me, a fun understanding of the contrast between North and South comes when I drive home from work. The only pleasure of a PM commute in Atlanta is listening to Buck and Kincade on 680 The Fan, a local sports talk radio station. John Kincade, born and raised in Philadelphia, is like me, a northern transplant. Buck Belue, on the other hand, is from Valdosta, Georgia, and is well known in these parts for quarterbacking the University of Georgia in their 1980 national championship season. The difference in their backgrounds, and their acknowledgment of it, makes their program quite entertaining.

In his 1867 book The English Constitution, Victorian economist Walter Bagehot argued that one reason the British government worked so well was it had a dignified part (the Crown) and an efficient part (the Parliament). When I first read that, I was struck that this seems to sum up the difference in our country between northern people and southern folks. We Yankees tend to be all about efficiency; Southerners seem more prone to embrace dignity. I see that a lot in Buck and Kincade; Buck has that charming southern ability to seem prim and proper without appearing stuffy, while Kincade is so efficient he actually counts every program the pair have done together and at least once an afternoon mentions what number show it is! (They recently celebrated their two thousandth session together.)

This past Monday, I had a North-South epiphany not just because of Buck and Kincade themselves, but also because of the subject they addressed on their program. They were discussing the Daytona 500, run the day before. Kincade criticized Dale Earnhardt, Jr., pointing out that in the past five years he has won only three races, none of them big NASCAR events, but that in spite of this the younger Earnhardt continues to get tons of endorsement deals and is talked about more often than far more successful racers. Buck defended Junior, as did a few of the callers. One man with a pronounced southern accent admonished Kincade by saying that criticizing Junior was just something you don't do in the South, although a few other callers with an equal amount of y'all in their diction contested this and agreed with the Yankee half of the hosting team.

In fairness, it should be mentioned that Junior did win the big race at Daytona in 2004, but nobody really had a good answer for Kincade's assertion that Junior has underachieved since then. And it was then that it struck me: Dale Earnhardt Junior is to NASCAR what the Cubs are to baseball. Or to look at it geographically, the Cubs are to Chicago what Junior is to Charlotte. On the north side of Chicago, where I grew up, people love the Cubbies and often become quite indignant if anyone--especially out of towners or worse, south siders--mocks the team over it's lack of significant achievement. Yet it's there with the Cubs and Junior, isn't it--that sinking feeling their fans get that there's no World Series trophy or significant checkered flag ahead.

Maybe Walter Bagehot was right about what a government needs to be successful. But go to Wrigley Field, or cheer for Junior, and you come to the inevitable conclusion that so often in sports, it's not a matter of dignity and efficiency. What you experience is hope followed by heartache.

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