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Our Coy Republicans

From the December 19, 2002 Washington Post: It's time for GOP senators--and the president--to publicly answer a simple question: Should Trent Lott be the Republican leader in the Senate?

5:00 AM, Dec 19, 2002 • By WILLIAM KRISTOL
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Had we but world enough, and time,

This coyness, lady, were no crime. . .

But at my back I always hear

Time's winged chariot hurrying near. . .

And your quaint honour turn to dust,

And into ashes all my lust.

--Andrew Marvell, "To His Coy Mistress"

IN THE MATTER OF TRENT LOTT, time's winged chariot has surely arrived. Now's the time for his Republican colleagues, and the president, to "roll all [their] strength . . . up into one ball," as Marvell put it, and publicly answer the simple question: Should Trent Lott be the Republican leader in the Senate?

I think he should go. Others believe he should stay. Some Republican senators have stepped forward to support Lott, and for their straightforwardness they deserve some credit. What's a bit mystifying--dare one say dishonorable?--is the coy posturing of most Republican senators, and of the president, who think Lott should go but won't say so.

Of course, in politics, it often makes sense to keep one's own counsel, work quietly behind the scenes, and, for that matter, take some time to make up one's mind. And so Republican senators, and the president, have perhaps been entitled to the past two weeks of ducking and dodging. But no more.

There are no new arguments to consider. Everyone has had a chance to hear from Lott, survey the lay of the land, do all the private consultations and make all the private representations they want. Sen. Charles E. Grassley may, as he said Tuesday, "resent having to deal with this issue of leadership when we ought to be dealing with the president's agenda." But life is tough. And Trent Lott , it appears, is not going to make his colleagues' job easy by going gently into the good night.

He has no obligation to make their job easy. Indeed, it would be understandable if Lott felt some contempt for all those who have expressed disappointment in him, distanced themselves from him, made comments to reporters on background that he should go, and even called for a meeting of the caucus to consider new leadership (now scheduled for Jan. 6)--all as a way to pressure him to leave, and all without saying he should. Lott's not taking their subtle hints. So: Is any Republican senator (other than the barely Republican Lincoln Chafee) willing to step forward to say publicly that he opposes Lott as his leader? Is it that hard?

I'm sure Karl Rove is wondering the same thing. The White House would prefer for Lott's colleagues to pass judgment on him without the president having to get involved. After all, it's not for the president to select congressional leaders. And the president did, last Thursday, denounce Lott's endorsement of the Dixiecrat agenda. As for Lott's fate, the president's spokesman, Ari Fleischer, has repeatedly said that "the president does not think he needs to resign."

But having gone so far as to express the opinion that Lott doesn't need to go, isn't it time for the president to express an opinion as to whether he should? Lott's colleagues would be grateful for a recommendation. There is something ludicrous about Fleischer having to say at his press briefing Tuesday, "The message that the White House is sending is, 'No comment' means no comment."

The hints and the feints and the background quotes are getting tiresome. Isn't Republican honor in danger of turning into dust? And, if the evasions continue until Jan. 6, won't the lusty exuberance of the president's remarkable Nov. 5 election triumph be reduced to ashes?

On Jan. 28, 1931, in the House of Commons, Winston Churchill expressed his disgust at Ramsey MacDonald's government:

"I remember, when I was a child, being taken to the celebrated Barnum's Circus, which contained an exhibition of freaks and monstrosities, but the exhibit on the program which I most desired to see was the one described as the 'Boneless Wonder.' My parents judged that the spectacle would be too revolting and demoralizing to my youthful eye, and I have waited 50 years to see the Boneless Wonder sitting on the Treasury Bench."

It would be revolting and demoralizing, even to my jaundiced eye, to have to think that the Republican bench is now populated by boneless wonders, too timid and too coy to share with the rest of us their judgment of Sen. Lott's worthiness to serve as their leader.

William Kristol is editor of The Weekly Standard.