Mrs. Lott

Although Democrats are quick to moan that life is so unfair in a Bush America, they have failed to stop and smell the roses that do appear all around them. One of these roses sprouted up most prominently this week.

At a fund-raiser in Missouri, Senator Hillary Clinton introduced a quote by Mohandas Gandhi by saying, “he ran a gas station down in St. Louis.”

It is similar to the comments made by Senator Trent Lott at a Strom Thurmond birthday party, when he said, “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.”

Republicans and Democrats alike expressed their disdain for Lott’s comment. Rev. Jesse Jackson and the NAACP called for Lott’s resignation. Representative John Lewis said he was “shocked and chagrined.” Al Gore called the statement “racist.” The Weekly Standard’s William Kristol said Lott’s comment was “thoughtless.” President Bush said the statement was “offensive” and “wrong,” and brother Jeb Bush also chastised the Senator. Senator McCain urged Senator Lott to explain himself in a press conference, as did former cabinet secretary William Bennett and Senator Olympia Snowe. Senator Hagel said the remarks were a “dumb statement” that “raises questions about his judgment.” Senator Daschle called them “offensive.” The New York Times said “Mr. Lott must go,” and columnist Paul Krugman said that Lott had a “nostalgia for Jim Crow.” Another Times columnists, Bob Herbert, used the occasion to suggest that the “party of Lincoln is now a safe house for bigotry.” Two out of three Republican National Committee members said Lott should give up his seat as the Senate Republican leader.

Ultimately, the hysteria and reprimands led to Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority Leader.

The comments by both Lott and Clinton made light of the sensitive issue of race. However, Clinton–not Lott–crafted a derogatory stereotype about a specific ethnic group.

And, yet, almost immediately, the protective roses and its thorns grew around Senator Clinton. Hardly a mention of the comment was made in the press. Network newscasts ignored it. Political and party leaders pretended it didn’t happen. Michelle Naef, administrator of the M.K. Gandhi Institute for Nonviolence, let her off the hook by saying, “I don’t think she was, in any way, trying to demean Mahatma Gandhi.” David Robertson, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor professed, “there’s no reason to think she doesn’t admire Gandhi, like so many people do. After all, Gandhi was influential to Martin Luther King, Jr., and I know she respects King.”

Clinton herself offered a weak apology, calling it “a lame attempt at humor,” as if her greatest offense was that the audience didn’t laugh loud enough. Naef agreed, saying, “I would say it was a poor attempt at humor.” The lesson learned apparently is that, if you’re going to stereotype, you should at least make it funny.

Over in Rampur, India, construction continued on “The Hillary Rodham Clinton Centre for Multimedia Technology,” which may soon be as infamous as the aborted Trent Lott Center for the Advancement of Colored People.

So, why the free pass for Senator Clinton? The outrage over Trent Lott’s comments were certainly amplified by his poor history on the issue of race, a black mark that Senator Clinton does not share and that has helped her deflect criticism for her recent remarks. Lott also gained greater criticism thanks to his position as Senate Majority Leader, a title that Clinton can only hope for given current Democratic fortunes.

The real reasons, however, go much deeper. As America’s Most Beloved Adultery Victim, she remains untouchable in the political realm. And as the only Democrat who stands a chance against Bush in theoretical polls, the disintegrating Democratic party–like a mother bear instinctively protecting her cubs–is quick to put their protective guard around their Patron Saint of Progressive Causes.

More importantly, however, Democrats are concerned that if Senator Clinton’s comments make it into the mainstream, their party stands to lose political control over one of their last remaining issues: race.

Where, then, are the Republican cries? Although some talk-radio personalities and TV pundits have used her remarks as further ammo against Democratic Enemy #1, most have kept quiet, in part because Republicans may not want to mess with the increasingly good political situation they find themselves in. Plus, Republicans learned their lesson–begrudgingly–after the Clinton impeachment not to mess with Hillary. That event, her resiliency, and her early recognition of a “vast right wing conspiracy” has since propelled her to the top of nearly every “Most Admired Women” list.

Indeed, the life of a Democrat becomes more depressing and less promising with each passing day, thanks to the powerful Bush administration, but they should occasionally be grateful for the “Get out of Jail!” cards they frequently receive.

Patrick Gavin works in the Office of Communications at the Brookings Institution. He can be reached at: