The Magazine

A Very Sorry Majority Leader

Trent Lott apologizes, over and over.

Dec 23, 2002, Vol. 8, No. 15 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.