"IT IS NOT A SMALL THING for one of the half-dozen most prominent political leaders in America to say that our problems are caused by integration and that we should have had a segregationist candidate," said former Vice President Al Gore on CNN's "Inside Politics" yesterday. "That is divisive and it is divisive along racial lines."

Gore was referring to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's tribute late last week to Strom Thurmond, who ran for president as a segregationist Dixiecrat in 1948. And Gore, who knows a thing or two about "being divisive along racial lines," is right. Said Lott: "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."

Lott, asked about his comments later, replied through a spokesman: "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."

But that attempt at clarification didn't work, principally because it clarified nothing. For one thing, Lott's original comments were, in fact, a direct endorsement of Thurmond's positions 50 years ago. That's what made them so stunning. Read them again: "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."

What, to raise just one of the dozens of possible questions, were the "problems" we would have avoided by electing a segregationist in 1948? And to raise another, why would Mississippians, years after even Thurmond has seemingly repudiated his repugnant views, still be "proud" of that vote?

Lott hasn't answered those questions or any others. But in a statement issued last night, he offered an apology. "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."

The contrition, though late, helps. Everyone makes mistakes, and even Tom Daschle was in a forgiving mood yesterday. "There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently," Daschle said when asked about Lott's comments. "And I'm sure this was one of those cases for him, as well."

But let's see what Daschle says in two years. As Gore's opportunistic comments suggest, the damage from Lott's tribute may already be done, and it comes at a time when issues of race are once again coming to the fore.

The Supreme Court last month agreed to hear arguments in two lawsuits challenging racial preference admissions at the University of Michigan. The case will surely stoke the most heated public discussion of the issue--which sits at the heart of racial politics in America--since Californians passed Proposition 209 in 1996, banning preferences in that state.

The Bush administration will have an opportunity to weigh in on the case, and the internal debate at both the White House and the Justice Department about how to do that is well underway. President Bush has governed on race preferences just as he campaigned--choosing to avoid the issue whenever possible. (Bush has long been reluctant to discuss the issue, other than to say that he is a "uniter, not a divider." In 1997, when he was governor of Texas, he refused to comment on a Houston referendum similar to Proposition 209, calling it a "local issue.") The White House did not return phone calls seeking reaction to Lott's comments.

That's too bad. Republicans are on the right side of the issue. The text of Proposition 209 borrowed heavily from the 1964 Civil Rights Act: "The state shall not discriminate against, or grant preferential treatment to, any individual or group on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin in the operation of public employment, public education, or public contracting."

And in this case, good policy is good politics. When voters hear a substantive, unapologetic argument in favor of race-neutral governance, they embrace it. Despite the cluttered landscape of savage anti-Proposition 209 attacks, the measure passed 54-46. According to a Los Angeles Times exit poll, 26 percent of California's black voters voted for it. That same year, Bob Dole won just 14 percent of the black vote. In 2000, Bush won just 8 percent of the black vote, despite the emphasis on "diversity" and "inclusiveness" at the Republican National Convention that nominated him.

Americans today, more than a year after the September 11 attacks, are still most concerned about issues that unite us--national security, the war on terror, weapons of mass destruction. The timing for a cross-racial, cross-party appeal for a realization of the principles of the Declaration of Independence--that all men are created equal--could hardly be better.

Lott's comments, however they were intended, complicate that effort. Every two years, Democrats and their friends spend millions of dollars to convince black voters that Republicans are little more than unreconstructed segregationists. Al Gore says Republicans use "colorblind" as hunters use a "duck blind." The DNC tells blacks that a vote for a Republican is a vote for "church-burnings." State Democratic parties evoke images of rabid dogs and Bull Connor. Jesse Jackson warns that the GOP will "take us back to 1896"--the year the Supreme Court endorsed segregation. The NAACP hints that Republicans favor lynchings. And on and on it goes.

Republicans are right to speak up about such heinous distortions of their positions. And they are right to speak out against race-conscious law.

Even with Lott's apology, they shouldn't be silent now.

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

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