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.

Lott took those explanations public himself on Wednesday, in phone interviews with conservative talk radio host Sean Hannity and CNN's Larry King. (Lott would later explain that phone interviews were the best he could do since he was vacationing in Key West, where there aren't television stations to provide a studio. As a measure of sincerity, that didn't help.) His apologies were stronger, but so were his rationalizations. "When I think back about Strom Thurmond over the years, what I have seen is a man that was for a strong national defense and economic development and balanced budgets and opportunity, and that's the kinds of things that I really had in mind."

The appearances failed to quell the growing chorus calling for Lott to step down. Black groups called the remarks "racist," and with virtual unanimity--excepting Pat Buchanan, Bob Novak, and Sean Hannity--conservative commentators ripped Lott. Democrats, in a display of moral courage they reserve for Republicans and race, piled on. Al Gore, perhaps the most accomplished race-baiter in politics today, ran toward cameras everywhere to express his horror. John Kerry, who in an unrelated development last week announced a presidential exploratory effort, called for Lott to step down as majority leader.

At the White House, meanwhile, the administration debated the proper response. On the one hand, it has never been President Bush's style to insert himself into a controversy. On the other, the substance of Lott's offensive remarks required a strong presidential rebuke. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer had said earlier in the week, "From the president's point of view, Senator Lott has addressed this issue. He has apologized for his statement, and the president understands that that is the final word from Senator Lott in terms of the fact that he said something and has apologized for it." Fleischer said Bush supports Lott as majority leader "unquestionably."

But those comments came before Lott's phone interviews, and by Thursday it had become clear that Bush would say something about the issue at a speech he was scheduled to give in Philadelphia. As Bush's staff discussed whether the president should single out Lott by name, Bush settled the debate personally. He would mention Lott directly.

"Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," said Bush. "He has apologized, and rightly so. Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals. And the founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American." The president went on to say that suggestions that segregation is acceptable were "offensive" and "wrong," but Fleischer told reporters that Bush did not expect Lott to resign. Lott immediately issued a statement embracing the president's criticism.

By Friday, tensions between the White House and Lott had grown. Sources say Lott made clear that if he were forced to step down from the Senate leadership, he would also likely resign his Senate seat, a significant development because Mississippi's current governor, Ronnie Musgrove, is a Democrat. He would appoint a replacement for Lott, presumably a Democrat, leaving the Republicans with a precarious one-seat margin.

When word leaked that Lott had scheduled a press conference for late Friday afternoon, preceded by a conference call with Republican senators, many on Capitol Hill assumed he would announce that he was stepping down as majority leader. He didn't.

"I have asked and am asking for people's forbearance and forgiveness as I continue to learn from my own mistakes and as I continue to grow as both a person and a leader."

Asking for forgiveness is reasonable--everyone makes mistakes. But wanting to do so and remain leader is not. The controversy is no longer just about Trent Lott. It's about the Republican party. Despite what Democrats would like to suggest, this is not because most or even many Republicans are secretly nostalgic for segregation. They aren't. Rather, it's because Lott failed to deal swiftly and seriously with the substance of his original comment. And it's because Republican officeholders, however understandable their instinct for self-preservation, failed to speak out strongly against one of their own on a matter of principle.

What's clear is this: The more Trent Lott speaks as the third-ranking Republican in America, the more his problem becomes the party's problem. "I want the Republican party not to be hurt by this," Lott said Friday. "I want us to find a way to reach out and to build on our mistakes that we have made in the past." Us to find a way? Our mistakes? We have made?

"I'm not about to resign for an accusation for something I'm not," Lott declared, responding to accusations that he is racist.

Perhaps he would consider stepping down for something he has become: a burden for his party.

Stephen F. Hayes is a staff writer at The Weekly Standard.