There isn’t a more inspiring political figure in America than Ward Connerly. If you don’t know the story of his fight against racial preferences – well you should.
Connerly was born in Louisiana in 1939. He grew up under segregation and in poverty. He educated himself, achieved success in business, and donated his time to public service in his adopted home state, California. He was appointed to the Board of Regents of the University of California. And when he saw that the school he governed was discriminating in favor of blacks and Hispanics against whites and Asians, he knew that what he saw in Berkeley and Davis was just as wrong as what he had endured in the Old South. He led the fight for the California Civil Rights Initiative in 1996, banning all discrimination on grounds of race or ethnic origin in the State of California.
The normal rules of American politics are suspended for black people who dissent from the civil-rights establishment. It can’t be any fun to be Trent Lott this week, but compared to the viciousness of the attacks on Connerly or Clarence Thomas or Tom Sowell or Shelby Steele, Lott’s treatment has been positively gentle. Connerly, I remember, was the subject of an assault on the front page of the New York Times that was so cruel it left me gasping. The Times tracked down Connerly’s father – a man who had run out on the family when Connerly was one, a man whom Connerly believed to be dead – and got him to say on the record that he thought his son must be ashamed of his heritage. Connerly was raised by his grandmother, a woman who was part Irish and part Choctaw Indian – the Times insinuated that she was an anti-black bigot from whom Connerly must have learned to hate other black people.
In fact, the only thing Connerly has ever hated is injustice. Almost anybody will resent an injustice that harms him; Connerly is that very rare kind of person who objects just as sternly to injustice in his own favor.
My Republican Party is the party of Ward Connerly, of Abigail Thernstrom, of Peter Kirsanow, and of the millions of other Americans, of all races, who continued to adhere to the principles of equal justice under law even after the civil-rights movement and the Democratic party jettisoned them.
And it is these Americans who have been betrayed first by Lott’s pro-segregation jokes and now again by his born-again support for reverse discrimination.
In contemporary America, the most important threats to equal justice and racial inclusion come from the left. Strom Thurmond ran a race-baiting campaign for president in 1948; the only race-baiter on the ballot in 2004 will be the Democrats’ Al Sharpton. The leader of the Republican party is George W. Bush; the most visible national Democrat is Bill Clinton – those two facts say all one needs to know about which party speaks for integrity, moral seriousness, and respect for law.
In recent days, a number of prominent conservatives have spoken up for Trent Lott. Some, fortunately not too many, seem inspired by the same neo-Confederate nostalgia that lurks behind way too many of Lott’s own statements. Many more, however, are expressing the belief that we have to stick by our own, whatever they do. Politics is a game of your team vs. their team, and when a member of your team does something wrong, you still rally round, because otherwise their team gains an advantage.
No question, politics is a team sport. But what Lott’s defenders fail to recognize is that the reason our team won the presidency in 2000 and made gains in Congress in 2002 is precisely that Americans recognize that conservatives and Republicans are the team that stands for something bigger than team advantage. If we defend Lott, we are accepting the political standards of James Carville, Sidney Blumenthal, and Terry McAuliffe.
Trent Lott used to say that he stood for the principles of Jefferson Davis. This week, the only principle he stands for is the principle of careerism. And that’s just not enough to qualify for the leadership of the party that remains after all these years the party – not of Davis – but of Lincoln.
Party of Reagan
When the Monica Lewinsky erupted before Americans had finished absorbing the details of Bill Clinton's 1996 presidential fund-raising techniques, Jay Leno joked, “How typical of Clinton to distract attention from one scandal with another scandal.” It’s alas typical of Republicans to distract attention from an achievement with an entirely unnecessary controversy: While we all debate Trent Lott’s future, we have failed to salute something President Bush did that is vital to everybody else’s future – the authorizing of America’s first missile defenses.
Critics of missile defenses point out that they won’t stop every threat. That’s true. Neither do metal detectors – but we wouldn’t want to board a plane without them. One of the many things made clear by Kenneth Pollack’s important book about Saddam Hussein's Iraq, The Threatening Storm, is the radical difference in power and effectiveness between ballistic nuclear missiles and all other weapons of mass destruction. Saddam understands that basic fact - and has spent or forgone hundreds of billions of dollars in order to capitalize on it. We had better understand it too.