Friday, December 13, 2002

Trent Lott


This stink will linger

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By yearning for the good ol'days, Trent Lott may have reduced his footnote in history to single, infamous quote.

In praising the ancient Strom Thurmond at the latter's 100th birthday celebration, Sen. Lott, R-Miss., noted that his state had supported Mr. Thurmond for president in the 1948 election. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Sen. Lott first described his words as "poorly chosen," a considerable understatement for what was interpreted as a tribute to the glory days of segregation. He later amended his apology to classify the remarks as "terrible."

People have been asking all week why the press, so eager to support the free speech guarantees of the First Amendment in cases like the one about putting up displays on Fountain Square, is giving Sen. Lott such a bashing over what he said at Strom Thurmond's birthday party.

Actually the press has had plenty of company. I can't speak for "the press," but speaking for myself, I support the right of Trent Lott to say any fool thing that comes into his head. I also support the right of people come right back at him with what they think.

In the case of Fountain Square, reaction to a display is likely to be a protest by people who don't like it. In the case of Sen. Lott, the reaction is that a lot of people think his remarks indicate latent racism or overt stupidity. In my book either one should be enough to disqualify him from being the Senate Majority Leader.

What he said was guaranteed to be offensive to anybody even slightly familiar with the history of civil rights in America. Strom Thurmond's legacy is memorable for two things - the venomous racism that lasted well past his middle years, and the seeming interminability of his tenure.

Mr. Lott's remarks weren't just terrible, they were unrepentant. He uttered an almost identical quote about Sen. Thurmond at a 1980 rally for Ronald Reagan. In 1981, while a congressman, Mr. Lott filed a friend-of-the-court brief supporting Bob Jones University's efforts to keep tax-exempt status despite its ban on inter-racial dating. "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy," he said then.

Now he regrets all of those words, or at least the way they have been interpreted. He said Wednesday that his comments were a "mistake of the head and not the heart," cribbing from the apology Jesse Jackson made for a 1984 slur against Jews. His contrition may be heartfelt, but it may not be enough.

His political opponents have been nipping at him all week like wolves after a wounded buffalo. "I simply do not believe the country can today afford to have someone who has made these statements again and again be the leader of the United States Senate," said Democratic senator and presidential aspirant John Kerry.

The complaints of Democrats he can stand. It's the reactions of Republicans that can force him out of his leadership position. The senator has spent a lot of time explaining himself to fellow Republicans over the past two days, assuring them of his sensitivity on racial issues and apologizing for causing the stink of scandal to waft over Republicans still basking in their newly won control of the Senate.

So far he has not been completely forgiven. "Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," President Bush said in a speech Wednesday. "Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals."

Having delivered that kick, the President may be willing to let the senator get back up - provided there is a change of wind in Washington and the stink moves away. My personal belief is that it will take a hurricane for this to blow over.

If the story stays hot for much longer, Sen. Lott will get another kick, this one knocking him off his leadership post. The President and plenty of Mr. Lott's fellow Republican senators have spent a lot of time and effort telling people that the GOP is inclusive. They don't need a majority leader who reminds people that the party of Lincoln is also the one that embraced old Strom Thurmond.

Contact David Wells at 768-8310; fax: 768-8610; e-mail: dwells@enquirer.com.




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