A tree by any other name

Gov. Sonny Perdue's press staff has been clear: The governor is a Christian with a Christmas tree, for Christ's sake! Any e-mails that suggest otherwise are bogus.

Yet on Dec. 2, Perdue's staff e-mailed a news release to reporters announcing that the governor and his wife would light Georgia's "holiday tree" at the Governor's Mansion that following Sunday.

Dan McLagan, the governor's communications director, followed 30 minutes later with a second e-mail, correcting the headline. The Perdues, he wrote, would light a "Christmas tree," not a "holiday tree."

"Due to a politically correct staff brain-freeze, the press office erroneously used the words 'holiday tree' to describe the coniferous flora that the governor and first lady will light this Sunday," McLagan wrote in the e-mail. "It is, in fact, a Christmas tree. The staffer responsible can be contacted at P.O. Box 432, Anchorage, Alaska, 99501."

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Associated Press and local television news outlets reported on McLagan's snarky missive. National outlets picked it up. Conservatives pointed to Perdue as a shining beacon of reason in a sea of scheming secularists intent on stealing the Christ from Christmas. And the governor joined a fire storm about the use of the word "holiday" instead of Christmas stirred up by Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly and other media conservatives.

McLagan would not identify the politically correct staffer, although the Alaska move was just a joke. Members of the press were left to wonder whether the episode was a publicity stunt by Perdue's staff to shore up the governor's standing with the state's Christian conservatives.

James Salzer, who covered the story for the AJC, says he had some suspicions about the e-mails when he wrote the story, but not any actual evidence that the situation was fabricated.

"It was surprising how clever the correction was and how quickly it came back," Salzer says. "Some of the language that was used was not a typical press release, but it didn't knock me over as being too surprising."

McLagan says he's flattered by the suggestion that he could orchestrate such a clever political stroke.

"I'm smart but I'm not that smart," McLagan says. "This falls into the category that sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. We saw the release that went out and realized that that was not the right phrasing for the governor. Most of us here are not all that politically correct."

Political correctness in Perdue's office seems to ebb and flow. Capital Impact, a website that covers Georgia politics, recently reported that 46 minutes after the Christmas tree correction, a subsequent e-mail titled "Governor and First Lady Announce Holiday Schedule at the Mansion" used the word "holiday" five times.

Emil Runge, a spokesman for the Georgia Democratic Party, says that Perdue is not the first Georgia governor to refer to his tree as a Christmas tree.

"They've always called it a Christmas tree," Runge says. "That's what it's always been called. It's nothing new. When Gov. Barnes was in the mansion, he called it a Christmas tree. And so did the Gov. [Zell Miller] before him."

In addition to the right-wing media, other groups contend "liberals" are working to secularize the Christmas holiday.

Recently, a group called Alliance Defense Fund took the fight to Jackson County, where controversy erupted after Benton Elementary School's principal sent an e-mail to teachers reminding them not to wear anything with a religious connotation and not to display Bibles in the classroom. Teachers complained the verbal orders went even further, forbidding certain songs and stories. The school's superintendent says that the district's policy does not support those decisions.

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