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A Lott of Questions about Republicans’ ‘Dirty Little Secret’

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By George E. Curry and Hazel Trice Edney

The furor over Trent Lott’s nostalgic support of the failed segregationist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond not only gives insight into the Mississippi senator’s views on race, but provides a revealing look at a timid news media, gun-shy Democrats and the two faces of the Republican Party—one that professes to be inclusive and another one that subtly exploits anti-Black sentiments.

Those and other revelations emerged last week as Lott tried to quell a firestorm of criticism from liberals, conservatives and even President Bush over a Dec. 5 comment made at retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration.
Lott praised Thurmond’s decision to bolt the Democratic Party in 1948 after it decided to support desegregation of the military and added a civil rights plank to its national platform.
A disappointed Thurmond said during his campaign, “All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.”
He carried only four Southern states: Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and South Carolina, where he was governor.
Lott, who was only seven years old at the time, said, “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.”
Oddly, journalists for so-called mainstream media outlets did not understand—or care to expose—the significance of Lott’s praise of the pro-segregation movement.
It was several days later when editorial writers, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights leaders expressed outrage over the televised remark that pressure was applied on the Mississippi senator to disavow his comments.
Not only was the White news media slow to explore Lott’s comments, White political leaders were reluctant to denounce him. It took five days for outgoing Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) to reject Lott’s comments and a week for George Bush to do likewise.
Daschle initially said, “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, and I’m sure this is one of those cases for him as well.” As the controversy continued to mushroom, however, Daschle was compelled to issue a stronger statement.
Surprisingly, some conservatives moved faster to seek Lott’s ouster as Senate majority leader.
Some White conservatives seemed genuinely upset that Lott’s comments had harmed their efforts to make inroads into the Black community, which favors Democrats by a 9-to-1 margin in national elections. For others, however, it presented an opportunity to get rid of a leader they view as not conservative enough.
At the opposite end of the political spectrum, Jesse Jackson, Kweisi Mfume and Hugh Price all weighed in. Unlike Sen. Daschle, newly-elected House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) provided forceful leadership for her party.
“He can apologize all he wants,” she told reporters: “It doesn’t remove the sentiment that escaped his mouth on that day at that party.”
Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) also took a strong posture. “The American community has come too far to go back to an era when racist statements and actions are marginalized, excused and brushed under the rug,” says the longtime civil rights activist. “His remarks were more than a case of bad judgment; they reflect a long-held mindset toward race.”
Lewis’ comment was buttressed when the “Clarion-Ledger” newspaper in Jackson, Miss., disclosed that Lott had made an almost identical remark 22 years earlier. On Nov. 2, 1980, speaking at rally with Thurmond, Lott said: “If we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are in today.”
With pressure mounting on Bush to speak out, he finally broke his silence a week later.
“Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong,” he said to a predominantly Black audience in Philadelphia. “Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country.”
Later in the day, Congressional Black Caucus leaders deplored Lott’s remarks for the second time in as many days.
Outgoing Congressional Black Caucus chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and incoming chair Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) issued a joint statement, saying: “We have examined Senator Lott’s record, and we are deeply disappointed to find that this is not an isolated incident, but a longstanding pattern of behavior that can no longer be ignored or tolerated.”
The next day, Lott held a news conference in his hometown.
“Segregation is a stain on our nation’s soul,” he said. “There’s no other way to describe it. It represents one of the lowest moments in our nation’s history, and we can never forget that.” He added, “I grew up in an environment that condoned policies that we now know were wrong and immoral, and I repudiate them.”
At the press conference, he disclosed that BET founder and CEO Robert L. Johnson had called to invite him to appear on the network.
Even Lott supporters wondered whether, in the words of former Richard Nixon aide H. R. Halderman, it was TL squared: too little, too late.
After all, even his conservative hometown newspaper in Pascagoula has turned against him.
“This is a position that should not be held by anyone who holds the beliefs that Lott espoused last week and 22 years ago,” says an editorial in the Mississippi Press. “We encourage Senate Republicans to replace him with someone with more progressive beliefs.”
A steadily sinking Trent Lott agreed to be interviewed by Ed Gordon on Monday night. Ironically, BET had announced earlier that Gordon’s weeknight program, ‘BET Tonight with Ed Gordon,” is being taken off the air at the end of the month.
Lott presents political problems for both Democrats and Republicans.
As Joshua Marshall, editor of talkingpointsmemo.com, an influential Web site for political junkies, observes: “What I think most Republicans understand is that a lot of Democrats would actually prefer Lott stay as majority leader. They’d like him to get battered and be wounded politically—and that’s pretty much already taken care of. But they’d really prefer he stay in place. Because as long as he’s Senate Majority Leader, politically speaking, he’s the gift that just keeps on giving.”
Republicans also are talking out of both sides of their mouth, according to Joseph Crespino, a columnist for the “New York Times.”
“Sound bites pitched toward the racist right have been the dirty little secret of the Republican Party for four decades,” he writes. “…Mr. Bush invoked the memory of Martin Luther King, Jr. before his convention acceptance speech. And even as the two Republican leaders with the clearest ties to the segregationist South—Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms—retire from the Senate, two of the most high-profile members of the administration are African-American. But the history of racial appeals won’t go away, even if the Republicans replace Lott.”

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