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, 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 publicly spoke about the comments. Not the Democrats, who had proven themselves to be a marginalized blend of Demopublicanism. Not the Republicans who didn’t need a scandal so close after taking control of Congress. And not the establishment media which have often replaced hard-hitting investigative journalism with soft features about Britney’s latest navel-baring. Only a few alternative publications even mentioned Lott’s comments.
But it was enough. Soon, Lott’s comments were all over the internet, and the establishment finally realized there might be a story.
The Democrats, after a few days, sniffed the wind, suddenly became morally outraged at the Republican leader’s segregationist stand, and demanded his censure. The Republicans, trying for damage control, had little choice but to say they didn’t think Lott was a segregationist–any more–but still had to denounce the statements by the man they elected to lead them in the senate. President Bush, whom no one could accuse of racism, was justifiably outraged, and sharply rebuked Lott’s statements, saying the statements were not just offensive, but wrong. However, the President did not call for Lott’s resignation.
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 Lott just might survive a call for his resignation, and wouldn’t be magnanimous in awarding them political perks. But, if Lott did resign as majority leader, the whisperers would all move up the corporate political ladder, gaining better salaries, larger offices, and more power.
But, none of the Republicans were outraged enough to call for Lott to resign his senate seat-that would lead to a Democratic governor probably appointing a Democratic senator, thus reducing the Republican Senate membership to just 50.
Lott-just a good ole country boy- had 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 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 had told the segregationist Council of Conservative Citizens that they had “the right principles and the right philosophy.” And now, in mid-December, a contrite 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 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 Trent 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, Trent Lott was more than willing to use 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 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 is politically far more damaging to America than a stain upon its soul.
WALT BRASCH, a national award-winning reporter and editor, is professor of journalism at Bloomsburg University. He is the author of 13 books, including The Press and the State, and the current book, The Joy of Sax: America During the Bill Clinton Era. You may contact him through his web-site www.walterbrasch.com.
He can be reached at: email@example.com
copyright 2002 Walter M. Brasch.