Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
December 10, 2002
POLITICS: Let's Talk About Trent
Let's talk about Trent Lott, shall we? Robert George does a good takedown on Lott in today's National Review Online, as part of a larger pile-on of frustrated conservatives who (1) have been waiting years for the chance to dump Lott, (2) were genuinely horrified by the sentiments contained in Lott's comments and (3) are eager to distance themselves from any nostalgia for Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign and demonstrate that, unlike today's leading commentators on the Left, they are willing to denounce one of their own when he goes off the reservation.
For those who have missed this particular dustup, Lott gave a talk at a celebration of Thurmond's 100th birthday and his retirement from the Senate after approximately six centuries of public service; Lott added, in a string of compliments to the Senate's elder statesman, "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." Of course, Thurmond had run a third-party campaign on the States Rights Democrat ticket against Harry Truman - an incumbent from his own party - and Republican Tom Dewey in 1948 on a platform of segregation and, well, not much else. Some people have suggested that maybe Lott was referring more broadly to Thurmond having championed the principles of federalism, but Thurmond in those days was a New Deal Democrat - he wasn't running against overweening federal authority over wetlands and hunting rifles and mattress tags, he was running against civil rights for black people, period. His running mate was Jim Crow. George quotes the official sample ballot statement for Thurmond's party in Lott's home state of Mississippi: "A vote for Truman electors is a direct order to our Congressmen and Senators from Mississippi to vote for passage of Truman's so-called civil rights program in the next Congress. This means the vicious…anti-poll tax, anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever."
A Lott spokesman first said on Friday that "Senator Lott's remarks were intended to pay tribute to a remarkable man who led a remarkable life. To read anything more into these comments is wrong." Under increasing fire, Lott issued a terse apology yesterday: "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."
Some Democrats have been uncharacteristically mute on this whole flap. Tom Daschle, who has shot himself in the foot with his mouth a few times lately, has to work with Lott and doesn't want to set a precedent of uprisings against Senate leadership, has basically said he thinks this was all a misunderstanding. The New York Times was unusually slow to pick up the story. At the other end of the spectrum, like a starving man jumping on a sandwich, Al Gore rushed to call Lott's comments 'racist' and call for him to be censured by the Senate:
GORE: Trent Lott has made a statement that I think is a racist statement, yes. That's why I think he should withdraw those comments, or else the United States Senate should undertake a censure.
JUDY WOODRUFF: But you're not prepared to go one step farther and say he is.
GORE: I can't look inside his heart. He has the opportunity to apologize for those comments and to withdraw those comments. And I think he's capable of doing that. I would sincerely urge him to do that, for the country's good, for the Senate's good, and for his own good.
SO, WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN? I don't think this one comment is exactly enough to convict Lott of being a racist and nostalgic for Jim Crow, but it's really impossible to read the comments any other way than as saying he was proud that his state voted for Jim Crow in 1948. That's appalling, and it's really much worse than just making an 'insensitive' remark. Face it, most of us have said things at times that would rub somebody or other a very wrong way, but when a government official makes a fairly unambiguous endorsement of a policy of discrimination, repression and, yes, turning a blind eye to terror - there's no good way to excuse that. Ask Germany's now-former Justice Minister where it can get you when you start playing around with the very thing your constituents should be most ashamed of in their history. And George notes that Lott has flirted with this kind of stuff before. A guy who's willing to play the race card in this manner, just because some of the folks back home like the sound of it, is unfit to be the elected leader of the party in the Senate. Period.
It's true, of course, that Lott made the comments not on the Senate floor or at a campaign rally, but at a testimonial dinner - he wasn't stumping for votes, just trying to make an elderly colleague feel good. That's a mitigating factor here, and it's why I think Gore's call for a censure is so obviously nothing but hypocritical opportunism (where was Al calling for a censure when the issue was obstruction of justice? Oh yeah, he was leading a pep rally on the White House lawn) at the expense, mostly, of other Democrats who will now look soft on lynching if they don't call for something harsher ("SENATOR KERRY CALLS FOR PUBLIC FLOGGING OF GOP LEADER"). Censuring Senators for ill-advised remarks, even offensive ones, is a bad precedent as well as a largely pointless and symbolic one; the price paid should be political in nature, and it will be.
Lott has failed on numerous occasions either to present the public face of the Republican party to the nation well or to get the job done on the Senate floor or at the bargaining table. He failed to force a public trial on the bill of impeachment, which at least one incoming GOP Senator (Thurmond's replacement, Lindsay Graham) should remember. His appetite for pork-barrel spending has brought him endless battles with John McCain. He once traded off lifetime appointments to the federal bench in exchange for a post for a crony. The latest flap demonstrates, at a minimum, that he has no clue how the things he says will be received outside Mississippi, and there are times when I wonder if he even cares how he will be received outside Mississippi.
There is a fairly large class of new Republican Senators coming aboard - Graham, Dole, Talent, Coleman, Sununu, Cornyn, Chambliss, and whoever Murkowski appoints to replace him in Alaska. That's 8 of 51 with no particular ties to Lott's leadership. Add on McCain and some of the moderates, especially from the northeast, or senators up for re-election in states with big black populations, who may want to distance themselves from this kind of thing (Collins, Snowe, Chaffee, Specter, Santorum, Fitzgerald, Gordon Smith, Voinovich) as well as senators who may have ambitions that will be blocked by Lott (Santorum, Don Nickles), and you've got the power base for a leadership challenge. Nickles is probably the best choice, a solid conservative, although I'm also partial to Santorum, a young, articulate northeasterner of unwavering conservative convictions.
As is true with almost anything in the Republican Party these days, though, such an uprising won't happen without pressure or at least a tacit green light from the White House. This is a dicey issue; the Senate will need to be on the same page with the Bush Administration if anything is to get done the next two years, and supporting a failed insurrection against Lott would be a catastrophe of Jimmy Carterish proportions for the president. But it's the right thing to do, and let's not forget that Bush himself has to face the voters in two years, and African-American turnout will be the single biggest thing the Democrats need to unseat him if the election is in any way close. The last thing he needs is a barrage of ads linking him with the Thurmond '48 campaign platform. Plus, deposing Lott over this is the right thing to do, and would give Bush the legacy he craves as a 'uniter, not a divider' and founder of a less monochrome Republican majority as well as a little political cover if he decides to also do the right thing and have his Justice Department argue against racial preferences before the Supreme Court next spring in the University of Michigan cases. (Stephen Hayes over at the Weekly Standard makes this connection explicitly in calling for Lott's head).
Bush will need the courage of his convictions here. He's shown the willingness to fire people already - ask Linda Chavez, Paul O'Neill, Harvey Pitt and Larry Lindsey. I'm not a fan of people who argue that African-Americans like Tiger Woods have some special obligation to lead political crusades, but on this one, if he's in any way in doubt, Bush will badly need the advice of Colin Powell and Condi Rice to firm up his backbone. It is very much the role of these top and trusted advisers in an elected government to bend the president's ear and remind him of precisely how bad all this sounds in the black community. But at the end of the day, Bush himself will have to take responsibility for sending the message that any sentiment of approval for racism is not acceptable in Republican leadership. If it's delivered now, it's a lesson that won't soon be forgotten.