August 27, 2007

He-Coons and Coral Snakes

When pundits, political professionals, and Jeb Bush's gubernatorial campaign marked Governor Chiles as too old-fashioned, gray-haired, and folksy for Florida in 1994, Chiles reminded voters--especially those who met him on the Walk--which candidate knew Panhandle towns like Quincy, Jay, and Baker as well as Orlando, Tampa, and Miami. Behind in the polls against the son of a president, he picked a phrase from Southern folklore to express many voters' simmering suspicions about his opponent, cautioning Bush in the final televised debate of the campaign that "the ol' He-Coon walks just before the light of day." Speaking a bit of "cracker" in the debate would drive rural North Florida wild, and strength there combined with a triumph in South Florida would win the election for him. Perhaps he also bet that a bit of bravado would reassure anyone wondering if old age had dampened his zeal for service.

According to the lore, the "He-Coon" was the eldest and wisest of a pack of raccoons. He knew to wait until the break of day, when the hunting dogs were tired of running, before venturing out to forage. The ancient appeal to wisdom baffled many Floridians--Jeb Bush most of all--but became the eccentric theme of the Chiles campaign's final push. On the Election Day when the Gingrich Revolution swept dozens of veteran Democrats out of office across the country, Governor Chiles made good on his warning to Bush. He leveraged every relationship built in thirty-six years of walking, talking, listening, and policymaking to win an upset re-election.

When you think about the "everyday lore" Floridians have grown up with certain animals, it's not so strange to consider why the "He-Coon" mythology sprung up.

Consider the coral snake, found in the Southeastern United States and marked by red-yellow-black-yellow-red-yellow-black bands. Although an antivenin is available, their venomous bite is quite painful and if you're not close to treatment, you could die from a close encounter. But worse still would be getting bit by a harmless milk snake, which shares the red-black-yellow colors but in a different configuration, and think you're on your last hike.

Unless you know the coral snake lore:

Red touching yellow kills a fellow; Red touching black is a friend of Jack

A simple change in color order is life or death. The best folklore is so simple and logical that most of the time you forget you're using it, but yoy won't forget it when it's most useful. Chiles spun simple sayings--some call 'em "cracker"--into political theater that no one can quite replicate without being laughed off the stage.

He was a four-dollar bill.

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