The Magazine

A Very Sorry Majority Leader

Trent Lott apologizes, over and over.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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AFTER A WEEK of confusion, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott held a press conference Friday in an attempt to clarify his position on segregation. "Segregation is a stain on our nation's soul," said Lott. "Let me be clear: Segregation and racism are immoral."

Stop for a moment and think about that. Almost half a century after the Supreme Court's landmark ruling in Brown v. Board of Education, almost 40 years after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and it's necessary to report that the nation's third-ranking Republican does, in fact, reject segregation. That commentators around the country have spent more than a week debating whether Trent Lott is racist or just inept is a measure of the damage his comments have done. It was a bad week for Trent Lott and for the Republican party.

The saga began Thursday, December 5, at a now infamous 100th birthday tribute to Senator Strom Thurmond. Lott, like the other speakers, heaped praise on Thurmond for his long career. Then Lott went too far. "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, of course, ran for president as a States' Rights Dixiecrat in 1948. As the name suggests, the Dixiecrats split from the Democrats for one reason: to defend segregation. Even the Army, Thurmond used to say back then, couldn't force whites to share their "swimming pools" and "chuches" with the "Nigra race."

Although many journalists were present at the recent birthday party, few quoted Lott's offensive remarks in their stories the next day. ABC News online mentioned the comments, and National Journal's "Hotline," an inside-the-Beltway political newsletter, served as a megaphone, running the story under the headline "Lott Proud of Dixiecrat Role." Liberal Internet journalist Josh Micah Marshall began commenting on his website, talkingpointsmemo.com. And late Friday afternoon, Washington Post reporter Thomas Edsall called Lott's office for a clarification.

Instead, he got a rationalization and even a mild rebuke. "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." Those words appeared in the Post story Saturday. And while that article also contained stunned reactions and strong criticism from Washington observers, Lott wasn't worried. At a holiday party thrown that night by ABC reporter Sam Donaldson, Lott told guests that his comments weren't a big deal, and that Strom Thurmond believed principally in a strong national defense.

Lott's second written statement came Monday, after Tim Russert raised the affair on Meet the Press, and other Sunday shows also discussed it. The statement read: "This was a lighthearted celebration of the 100th birthday of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond. My comments were not an endorsement of his positions of over 50 years ago, but of the man and his life."

These two Lott statements didn't work for fairly simple reasons. The first one blamed those who were offended by Lott's remark, and the second one plainly contradicted his words. By Tuesday, amid growing criticism of the original tribute to Thurmond's presidential bid and Lott's ineffective clarifications, his office released another written statement. "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 for my statement to anyone who was offended by it." Critics jumped on this statement, too, pointing out that Lott chose a descriptive word, "discarded," rather than a judgmental one.

Early in the week, there was already a dramatic difference in the way the comments were received by Republican staff on Capitol Hill and their bosses. Younger staff members seemed to grasp the offensiveness of the substance of Lott's comments and the extent of the political damage. The same cannot be said of Republican elected officials. The early strategy--to a senator--was to keep quiet. "If you're going to shoot the king," said one aide, "you'd better be sure you kill him."

"By Wednesday and Thursday," Lott would say later, "it got quite active." Lott's chief of staff began calling local conservative activists to enlist their support. His message was direct and, some believe, threatening: We will remember who is supporting us in this time of need, and you'll want to be on that list.

Lott, too, was on the phone. While many of his Senate colleagues had avoided criticizing their leader in public, few had spoken on Lott's behalf. Lott had already spoken to a handful of Republican senators, and by midweek he started calling the rest to explain his comments, to assure them that the worst was over, and to encourage them to offer their public support.