Lotts of Trouble

There are many places where politicians can get themselves into trouble. They can stumble in a response while thinking on their feet in a debate. They can misspeak under the pressure of poignant questioning by the press. Good politicians learn to deal with these situations. Politicians rarely commit political suicide at a birthday party. The Republican Senate Leader Trent Lott managed to rhetorically hang himself.

On December 5, friends of Senator Strom Thurmond were gathered to celebrate the retiring Senator’s 100th birthday. It would have been possible to lavish praise on Thurmond for his length of service, for rising up from his segregationist past, for his love of country. No! Lott had to praise Thurmond’s run for president as a Dixiecrat on the platform of continued segregation in 1948. After making a point of the fact that Mississippi voted vote for Thurmond, Lott added, “If the rest of the country had followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Now, it is possible to argue that perhaps Lott was speaking of Thurmond’s stand on national defense or that Lott was carried away on the occasion of Thurmond’s birthday. However, the key element of Thurmond’s presidential run was his segregationist policies. Intended or not, Lott’s statement implied an endorsement of those ugly policies.

Since that time, Lott has profusely apologized and recognized the error of his statement. I am sure that the Lott of 2002 is not a segregationist. Lott should not be demonized more that his statement warranted. However, that does not mean that Lott should remain the Senate leader. Much of politics is about symbolism. Having someone who is tainted, no matter how indirectly, with segregation and who is apparently politically inept would not serve his Republican colleagues well. Lott should step down from his Senate leadership position.

This may be hard for some Republicans to accept. They could be rightly upset with the apparent double standard of former KKK member and Democratic Senator Robert Byrd using the n-word and not enduring nearly the same amount of negative attention. Senator Edward Kennedy who soundly criticized Lott was silent about Byrd’s remarks. Former President Bill Clinton has many times lavished praise and honors on the segregationist Arkansas Senator William Fullbright whom Clinton viewed as a mentor. Clinton has immunity from such criticism. Most have forgotten that Jessie Jackson used an anti-Semitic epithet. There is much truth in the quip by Rush Limbaugh that the fastest way for Lott to extricate himself from this self-inflicted mess is to switch parties.

How much more ennobling would it have been if some of the leadership in the African-American had accepted Lott’s apology, worked for true reconciliation, and tested Lott sincerity. There was just too much political advantage to be gained from ignoring that course.

Sure, there may be a double standard, but double standards sometimes are a consequence of holding yourself and your allies to higher ones.

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