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Secret Service Says Jackson Doesn’t Think ‘Pontiac’ Code Name Is Racist

June 24, 1988 GMT

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Some people are claiming the radio code name, ″Pontiac,″ that the Secret Service uses for Democrat Jesse Jackson has racial overtones, but a Secret Service spokesman said Friday that Jackson does not think it’s racist.

The Secret Service gave Jackson the code name when the agency began protecting him as a presidential candidate last fall. Secret Service agents use the code names in their radio transmissions as they track the movements of the candidates.

Jackson aides tried to trace why Jackson had been assigned that name after learning that folklore expert Alan Dundes had said ″Pontiac″ is a slur - the punch line to a series of racist jokes collected by his students at the University of California, Berkeley, said Jackson’s national political director, Frank Watkins.

Pontiac, usually associated with a car and a city in Michigan, is also an acronym for ″Poor old nigger thinks it’s a Cadillac,″ Dundes told The Philadelphia Inquirer, which alerted the campaign and the Secret Service to the allegation.

The campaign uncovered no proof of racial motivation in the assigning of Jackson’s code name, but Watkins stated:

″Given this administration’s civil rights record and what we’ve heard ... as to the mentality they have toward black people, absolutely nothing would surprise me.″

However, Secret Service spokesman Bob Snow that when the service was first questioned about the matter by a reporter a few weeks ago, the agents immediately went to Jackson and asked him if he considered the name racist and if he wanted a new one.

″We asked him if he had a problem with it and he said absolutely not,″ Snow said.

Watkins concurred that neither he nor Jackson knew of Pontiac in a racial context but said Jackson asked his staff to look into the matter. Some blacks Watkins subsequently talked to recalled it as a racial slur from their childhood.

The name originated on a list of dozens of names provided to the Secret Service by the White House Communications Agency, a branch of the military assigned to serve the White House and Secret Service, according to Snow.

Snow said the service chooses code names from the random list for their utilitarian attributes, though sometimes the codes appear to fit characteristics of the candidates or government officials.

President Reagan has a cowboy-style code, ″Rawhide″; ″Deacon″ is used for Jimmy Carter, a born-again Christian; and Jackson’s 1984 code name was ″Thunder,″ which appeared to reflect his thunderous oratory.

Snow said when people in the agency’s communications division were questioned about Pontiac, ″they didn’t know what we were talking about.″

″They said that was the name we selected because that was the name we picked.″

Snow said the service generally tries to give all candidates in a given year code names beginning with the same letter, such as Gov. Michael Dukakis’ code name, ″Peso.″

He noted some people think that name was chosen because Dukakis is short and speaks Spanish.

″I’m sure nobody in our communications department knew that Mr. Dukakis speaks Spanish,″ he said.

However, he acknowledged that when the service narrows down the names to fit its needs - such as not having similar sounding names that will get confused on radio airwaves - there are still many to choose from and he could not ″put myself inside somebody’s mind″ who actually made the selection.

He said the matter was brought up at a Secret Service staff meeting and no one related Pontiac to a racial slur.

Dundes said the meaning of Jackson’s code name was obvious to him when he discovered Jackson’s code name by reading a news magazine article.

Dundes said there are five or six versions of the Pontiac joke, which has been around for about 10 years. The most basic one, he said, involves the riddle of why a black man buys a Pontiac instead of a Cadillac.

Dundes said his students and field researchers had collected many examples of the Pontiac joke.