A LOTT OF QUESTIONS
by Walter M. Brasch
American Reporter Correspondent
BLOOMSBURG, Pa. -- It was just an off-the-cuff comment. A throw-away line, actually. Just something to honor retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday bash.
Senate majority leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said Mississippians were "proud of" voting for the segregationist Thurmond when he ran as a States Rights presidential candidate in 1948, largely against the civil rights record of incumbent Harry Truman. Then, Sen. Lott quickly added, "If the rest of the country had followed our lead we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
For a couple of days, hardly anyone mentioned the comments. Not the Democrats, who have become the marginalized blend I call Demopublicanism. Nor the Republicans, who didn't need a scandal so soon after taking control of Congress. And neither were the major media, where politically hard-hitting investigative journalism has largely been replaced by "soft" features about Britney Spears' latest navel-baring video. Only a few alternative publications even mentioned Sen. Lott's comments before the storm broke.
But a few was enough. Soon, Sen. Lott's comments were all over the Internet, and the establishment media finally realized there might be a story in them.
After a few days, the Democrats sniffed the wind, became morally outraged at the Republican leader's segregationist stand, and demanded his censure, and in Sen. John Kerry's case, his resignation as majority leader. The Republicans, trying for damage control, had little choice but to say they didn't think Sen. Lott was a segregationist - any more - but still had to denounce the statements by the man they elected to lead them in the United States Senate. Oklahoma's Sen. Don Nichols called for a new majority leader, and the Senate GOP caucus set Jan. 6 for a new election.
Some Republicans began a whispering campaign, giving the media statements of outrage - as long as they weren't quoted by name or held responsible for their beliefs. After all, the Republican cowards figured that Sen. Lott just might survive a call for his resignation, and wouldn't be magnanimous in awarding them political perks. But if Sen. Lott did resign as majority leader, the whisperers would all move up the corporate political ladder, gaining better salaries, larger offices, and more power.
Then President Bush, whom no one can accuse of racism, said he was outraged, and sharply rebuked Sen. Lott's statements, saying the statements were not just offensive, but wrong. However, the President did not call for Sen. Lott's resignation. His comments were followed by an attack by Gen. Colin Powell and then by outright challenges to Sen. Lott's leadership.
None of the Republicans were outraged enough to call for Sen. Lott to resign his Senate seat, however - that would've probably led to a Democratic governor appointing a like-minded replacement, thus reducing the GOP's Senate membership to just 50.
Sen. Lott - just a good ole country boy - managed to stay alive politically by telling his constituents what he thought they wanted to hear. As a fraternity president at the University of Mississippi, he not only opposed integrating his own Ole Miss fraternity, but chapters in all states. As a senator, he voted against an extension of the Voting Rights Act and against declaring a national holiday in honor of Martin Luther King Jr.
He once voted for a Constitutional amendment that, if it had passed, would have outlawed busing to achieve racial integration. He supported federal provisions to allow tax exemptions for segregated private schools. In a campaign speech, he once told the segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens that they had "the right principles and the right philosophy."
And now, in mid-December, a contrite Sen. Lott, realizing the political damage and embarrassment he had caused, orchestrated a series of apologies, stating that his earlier remarks were "totally unacceptable and insensitive," that he was truly sorry to "anybody who was offended," and that he supported affirmative action. He told the media that although he grew up in a segregationist environment, "segregation and racism are immoral." It's what his 50 fellow Republican senators and the nation wanted to hear.
A number of questions still remain. Is Trent Sen. Lott a segregationist and racist who used that philosophy to get elected several times, and is he now apologetic because he wants to keep a leadership role and his Senate seat?
Why did Americans and their media, for 48 years, tolerate Strom Thurmond as a U.S. Senator, although most of that time he was a segregationist and all of that time wrote no major legislation?
Why did the American media, which either didn't know or didn't care about Sen. Lott's history of segregationist and probably racist beliefs, remain relatively silent for the 14 years he was in the senate? More important, why was the establishment press silent for days after the most-recent comments?
Are the Democrats gleefully morally outraged because they really are outraged, or because they now have some political capital against a Republican-dominated Congress? Are the Republicans justifiably outraged, or are they just doing damage control to keep their Congressional power and whatever political capital they received during the mid-term elections?
Four years ago, Sen. Lott was more than willing to use President Bill Clinton's sexual escapades as political fodder for a series of vicious attacks upon the President and the Democratic party. So, one interesting question remains.
Why has no political leader called for Sen. Lott's impeachment? The answer might be that Congress and Americans are more outraged at sexual conduct than they are at racism. Apparently, a stain upon a dress that almost tore apart the Clinton administration does far more political damage to America than a stain upon its soul.
Walt Brasch is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. His latest book is The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era. You may contact him through his Website, www.walterbrasch.com.