YOU DON'T HAVE to be a liberal -- or a Democrat, or black -- to be appalled by Trent Lott. You only have to be a mensch -- or enough of one to regard Jim Crow and its trappings as one of the most shameful chapters in American history. Is that the view of Lott's Republican colleagues in the US Senate? If so, let them prove it by replacing him as majority leader when the new Senate convenes next month.
A recap for latecomers:
Senator Trent Lott speaking at Strom Thurmond's birthday party.
Last week, at a 100th birthday party for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott offered these words of praise:
"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 followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Thurmond ran for president in 1948. He was the candidate of the States Rights Party, a "Dixiecrat" who had bolted the Democratic fold in a protest against civil rights. The platform Thurmond ran on was blunt -- "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race" -- and he matched it with bluntness of his own. "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the army," he declared, "cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches, and our places of re creation and amusement." On Election Day he carried four states, one of which was Trent Lott's Mississippi.
If Lott supported Thurmond in 1948, who could blame him? He was 7 years old and presumably didn't know better. But what possible excuse is there for extolling Thurmond's nakedly racist campaign now, 54 years later? Or for claiming that America would be better off if Thurmond had won? Better off with a lynch law and "whites only" drinking fountains? Not even Thurmond himself, who renounced his segregationist views years ago, would say such a thing. It is no wonder Lott's testimonial was met, as The Washington Post reported, with "an audible gasp and general silence."
This was no unwitting faux pas. Lott has said the same thing before. The New York Times reported Wednesday that he told a Mississippi rally in 1980, "If we had elected [Thurmond] 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." Lott was then a little-known congressman, and his words went unnoticed. Today he is a powerful GOP senator, and his words triggered a storm.
It's clear that Lott meant what he said -- otherwise, why would he refuse to take it back? Or to at least make it plain that he abominates segregation? Instead, his first response to the criticism was a truculent statement from his press secretary: "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."
When that stonewall failed to calm the storm, Lott tried again. "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embrace the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."
Anyone offended by his toast to Thurmond should have been offended all over again by this smarmy nonapology. "A poor choice of words?" On the contrary, the words he chose were only too clear. But rather than make an equally clear show of contrition, he deigned to apologize only "to anyone who was offended."
Worse yet was his bland euphemism for the ugly system of apartheid the Dixiecrats championed: "the discarded policies of the past." Not the hateful policies or the cruel policies or the evil policies. Even now, Lott cannot bring himself to denounce Jim Crow. The most he will say is that it was . . . "discarded."
Lott's nostalgia for the pre-civil-rights South is an old story. In a 1999 column titled "Renounce the racists, Senator Lott," I reviewed his ties to the racist Council of Conservative Citizens, an organization whose newsletter has fulminated against "miscegenation" and "race-mixing" and whose website features articles about "the struggle for the survival of white people on this continent." (At the moment, its Web site also features a prominent photo of Lott beside a headline saluting his "courage.") Though Lott claimed at the time to have "no firsthand knowledge" of the CCC's beliefs, he was in fact a longtime supporter. He had addressed its gatherings, hosted its officials in Washington, and asked one of its top operatives to play a role in his Senate campaign. "The people in this room," Lott told the CCC's national board in 1992, "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."
Mississippi voters are free to send anyone they want to the US Senate -- even a witless yahoo who waxes nostalgic for the pre-civil rights South. But Republicans in the Senate are under no obligation to make him their leader. Lott is a disgrace to his party. The longer his party waits to repudiate him, the steeper the price it will pay.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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