Can George W. Bush and the Republican party really afford to have Trent Lott (R., Miss.) be its face in the United States Senate? The question has to be pondered as the wannabe Majority Leader tries to dig himself out of his latest mess.
As everyone knows by now, in a Thursday testimonial to the retiring Senate legend, Lott said, "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."
"These problems?" When Thurmond ran for president in '48, it wasn't as a Republican or Democrat. It was as the candidate of the State's Rights Democratic party — founded explicitly to keep Jim Crow alive.
On Friday, Lott spokesman Ron Bonjean tried to cover for his boss with a two-sentence statement: "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."
Unfortunately, those words just didn't cut it. The incoming Senate Majority Leader was speaking directly to the moment in time when Thurmond split the Democratic party over Harry Truman's embrace of a civil-rights agenda.
From the Mississippi State Democratic party's official sample ballot for the 1948 election, here's some of the "problems" that Mississippians feared: "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."
Perhaps Sen. Lott should ask Alabama-born Condoleezza Rice — whose childhood friends were killed in a church bombing — if she believes her life would have been better if Strom Thurmond had become president.
So, Monday night, faced with mounting criticism of his comments, Lott issued another apology. This time, it was, "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."
"Discarded policies" — that's a quaint, benign quaint phrase that effectively sidesteps the real horror that was Jim Crow. The new statement itself was very nice and, all things considered, one might give Lott the benefit of the doubt — if he didn't have a record, unmatched by any other current leading Republican of paying homage to a romanticized view of the "old South."
That's right. This isn't the first time Lott has been caught up in "a poor choice of words."
In a 1984 speech to the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Biloxi, Miss., Lott declared: "The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform."
In 1998, it was revealed that Lott had spoken several times to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a "racialist", neo-white supremacist organization. Lott claimed that he didn't know about their philosophy, believing it to be a benign "conservative" group. In fact, he had written a regular column for the CCC's "Citizen's Informer" publication over the course of several years. It's also rare for any member of Congress to write for an outside group's publication without getting an idea of what positions the group advocates.
Furthermore, Lott's uncle popped up to say that his nephew well knew what the CCC was about. Just ten years ago, Lott praised the CCC's philosophy. A year before all this came to light, Lott hosted the CCC in Washington.
Several black Republicans (including this writer, a Republican National Committee staffer at the time) approached Lott to address the problem. He demurred. His office made it clear that the senator had said all he intended to say about the CCC.
Yet Lott plays the "image" game when he feels like it. On at least one occasion, when he was Senate Majority Whip, black staffers were abruptly summoned into his personal office — to provide "color" to photos in a media profile.
This is a problem unique to Trent Lott, not a "southern conservative" one. Newt Gingrich of Georgia, and Texans Dick Armey and Tom DeLay, the architects of the 1994 GOP takeover of the House, are all southerners. They've all been attacked for various "sins" against liberal orthodoxy on Medicare, taxes, regulation, etc. But none has left a trail of offhanded racially charged comments. Lott has — and doesn't seem to care.
We're supposed to believe that this latest gaffe is "a poor choice of words" — one that just happens to pop up over and over again?
Yes, maybe African Americans need to "get over" slavery and Jim Crow. But why can't Trent Lott "get over" the civil-rights movement?
Most people don't expect a 100-year old Thurmond or an 85-year-old Robert Byrd (D., W.V.) to completely escape their racist pasts. But Trent Lott is an adult baby boomer, of the same generation as the current and previous presidents. The leaders of this generation supposedly went through the '60s and supposedly learned a few things about race. That seems true of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. But Trent Lott is waxing nostalgic about the Confederacy and Dixiecrats.
For Republicans who don't want to ponder the potential ramifications of race on the party, consider that this is a man whose cluelessness extends beyond racial matters:
This is the same Trent Lott who oversaw the continual shrinking of the Senate Republican majority between 1996 and 2000.
This is the same Trent Lott who seemed oblivious that a frustrated Jim Jeffords would bolt the party, and had the Senate over to the Democrats.
This is the same Trent Lott who ticked off social and defense conservatives in 1999: As Air Force Lt. Kelli Flinn was being court-martialed for having an affair with a married man and lying about it to a superior, Lott declared that the military had to "get real." Rather than punishment, Lott felt that "at the minimum, [Flinn] ought to get an honorable discharge."
George W. Bush and his guru-advisor Karl Rove have to ask if this is a man who should have a prominent position in the "new" Republican party. It's not as if there aren't more interesting alternatives: The ideal choice would be telegenic Bill Frist of Tennessee. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, he helped restore the GOP majority. (The one downside for Frist is that the surgeon may be too smart for the position. As one veteran Senate staffer put it, "The smart guys don't win these leadership races because it would be too intimidating to the other senators. You have to be just smart enough to do the job, but not so smart as to make the other members of the club feel inadequate.")
There's also Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, the incoming Senate Majority Whip. He's a forceful champion of free speech, especially in opposition to the McCain-Feingold version of "campaign-finance reform."
Even outgoing Whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma would be an improvement — and someone who pushes real tax reform. In other words, these are people who have some genuine ideas and can be good spokesmen for the party and its principles. In all cases, they'd be a significant improvement to lead the GOP.
Ultimately though Bush, Rove, and Co. have to ask: "Do they want someone who deserves to be Senate Majority Leader — or a man who seems to continually fantasize being white majority leader?"
— This is an expanded version of an piece that appears in Tuesday's New York Post.