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The Trent Lott Controversy Must Go!

It's not often that I disagree with Joshua Micah Marshall, but this whole "Trent Lott has got to go!" thing is a total crock.

Let me preface all this by pointing out that I rank Trent Lott right up there with athlete's foot on the list of admirable organisms. And no one would be happier than I to see him resign in disgrace. But what's this donnybrook about, anyway? It's about a single sentence, muttered at a birthday party, filtered through the reinterpretation engine of the nation's pundits.

For the record, here's exactly what Lott said. He observed that, when Strom Thurman ran for president in 1948, Lott's home state, Mississippi, voted for him. "We're proud of it," Lott continued. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years."

God alone know what he meant by "these problems," but note that there no mention of race. Pundits, though, have been quick to point out that Thurmond ran on a platform of segregation. Some have therefore concluded that Lott's remarks were tantamount to an endorsement of the segregationist policies of the 40's.

That's quite a stretch, if you ask me. What's much more likely is that Lott was engaging in a little bit of birthday hyperbole, stating that Thurmond is a good guy and therefore he would have made a good president. You and I and the American constituency of 1948 all agree that Thurmond would have been a terrible president, but lionizing a birthday boy is hardly unusual for any of us. Apparently Lott made a statement almost identical to this ("if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today.") at a 1980 Thurmond rally. Some have seized on this a proof that Lott meant what he said this time. I'd argue just the opposite. I'd say it proves that he was just pulling stock phrases out of a hat and tossing them at the Senator willy-nilly.

But, okay, for the sake of argument, let's say that Lott does support segregation, and chose to reveal this in a cryptic, off-the-cuff remark made at a birthday party. Where does that leave you? Does the revelation that Lott is a Good Ol' Boy shock anyone? Are there people saying "Jeeze, up until last week I though Trent Lott was a tireless crusader for racial equality and civil rights, but this utterance has completely turned me around!" No, of course not. Democrats aren't seizing on this because it changes their opinion of Lott one iota, but simply because they can.

And that's exactly what happened to Clinton, you'll recall. I bunch of people disliked him, they caught him making ambiguous statements, and they raked him over the coals. Remember, Clinton wasn't impeached because he had sex with that woman, but because he lied about it. There, as here, the issue wasn't what he'd done, or what he believed, but simply what he had said.

Few people are criticing Lott for actually embracing segregation policies; they are instead criticing him for saying something that could be construed as approbation for segregation. "Any suggestion that a segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong," Bush said today. That's right: Lott's suggestion is wrong, but no comment on whether it would be wrong for Lott to actually believe that a segregated past was acceptable. The same goes for the Democrats. Lieberman said "Senator Lott's recent comments about Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign were hurtful, divisive, and fundamentally un-American." The comments, the comments.

At what point did we all become more concerned about what people accidentally say than what they actually believe or do? Lott says something stupid and folks want to run him out on a rail; meanwhile, not a single person in the government has lost their job over the intelligence failures which culminated in the WTC attacks, despite the fact that 9/11 was a very real event (as opposed to mere words) and that some people are clearly culpable, of negligence if nothing more.

Besides, if Lott supports segregation, I'd rather he tell us outright that keep it secret. Furthermore, we have no shortage of idiots in office, and they are as free to express their opinions, no matter how asinine, as the rest of us are. It's odd how liberals drop their stalwart defense of the first amendment whenever race becomes a factor.

The Republican National Committee and George Bush have every right to can Lott if they feel that he has become a political liability. But the rest of us can't just demand he be unseated because of a jumble of words that may or may not express some view we find reprehensible. If you believe in democracy -- and I do -- then you have to face the fact that sometimes people you don't like wind up in office, and it's not your place to overturn the will of the voters, no matter how wrongheaded you think those voters might be.

Posted on December 12, 2002 to Politics


That oughtta get me some comments.

Posted by: Matthew on December 12, 2002 3:18 PM

As you are pimpin' for comments, I'll make mine. =)

One thing I have found in the time I have worked as a member of the media covering governmental officials: those in office, especially those in office for as long as Lott's been in office, *know* that what they say is recorded and scrutinized. This is why Bush was virtually forgiven during his campaign - the poor dullard wasn't hip to the rules of the game, people! Cut him some slack! This is why Clinton was lambasted -- he should have known better, the smooth career politician that he was...

But Lott knows the rules -- he plays the rules to his advantage, when he can. He knows they cut both ways. He swallows the condemnation that Bush has handed out, he sits on his hands for a few weeks, then he comes out of media silence and starts back up where he left off. The American people will forget all about this by after Christmas. And besides, by the new year we'll be bombing, and that will scrub the minds of even the stingiest of bleeding hearts.

As for whether he believes it or not? Who cares? I would be surprised if most of the house and virtually all of the senate was racist/sexist/ageist/whathaveyou. The thoughts in the hearts are ungovernable by the populace -- it is merely the actions that those who watch can judge...

I personally understand why some want to string Lott by his heels -- the left is characterized by forgiveness and rationalizing. When the right screws up, the left bleats for a few days, is labeled mean-spirited and anti-American by the right, backpedals as it tries to keep the radical label from sticking, then pals up with the right (which holds the moderate banner as of late) to win reelection.

It's a shame that the left has so many idealistic dreamers while the right has political savvy.

Wow. That was a long comment. Sorry about taking up so much space. I guess this makes up for reading you for so long and keeping quiet all this time. Thanks for the interesting perspective...

Posted by: lara. on December 12, 2002 7:25 PM

I have nothing of great import to say. But...In virtue of his racism he deserves to be symbolically punished. Why not? Racism is abhorent. He let his real view slip. Some other views (1) This is politics. Perhaps lately. Perhaps always. Fair treatment of one's political enemies is not the current practice. Yes, on a surface reading the whole thing is absurd. He is being crucified for a comment open to various interpretations. (The fact that we have good reason to believe he in fact has racist views does make said crucification seem justifiable to a certain extent.) (2) Yes, many others have done worse. But there's no way to 'get them.' Lott stepped on the landmine and now he is fair game. This doesn't justify it but it is hard to worry about (a) him or (b) the precendent it sets (since it's frankly the going thing...the precedent was set long ago). (3) I approve of a political climate where indications of racism let loose the dogs. Maybe all the expressions of outrage are hypocrical. But I do believe that widespread social disapproval can change people's attitudes and racism is a scourge in our society. Could we be sanguine if someone said something that implied 'terrorism is an effective method for achieving justice'? If not, we can't be similarly relaxed about someone who suggets support for something just as evil--segregation and lynching--in the case of Strom Thurmond.

That said, it's overhyped...I think you have a point that statements said in passing seem to be a strange basis for such a public outrage.

However: "It's odd how liberals drop their stalwart defense of the first amendment whenever race becomes a factor." Conservatives are after Lott too. Also, the first amendment is not being violated. There are consequences for speech. One can lose certain reputation, honors, prestige, jobs, etc. for repellent speech. The first amendment does not protect these in this case.

Posted by: Miel on December 12, 2002 11:02 PM

The fact that everyone is outraged is the real telling factor here. All Democrats and apparently 90% of Republicans want nothing to do with Thurmond's '48 campaign. The fact that Lott made these comments (more than once) is not the only problem here. A little legwork reveals that he has a pretty consistent record of aligning himself with white supremacist groups in the South, then claiming that he wasn't aware of their positions or didn't mean to support THAT part of their position. Just as telling is the fact that some (Helms, DeLay) have actually defended him to varying degrees, people who also have questionable histories in relation to segregation. Whether you are a Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, whatever, a large most fair minded Americans agree that segregation was VERY BAD. Anybody who disagrees with that should not be in office, and because of our system of government, the only way to ensure that is for the media to inform the voters what these morons say and do and impress it upon us enough that we don't vote for them the next time around.
I like Strom Thurmond. I think he may have made a good president for this country. NOT in 1948. Maybe in 1968, I don't know. But if that is what was meant, Lott should know better, and he should have said that.

Posted by: albert on December 13, 2002 7:19 AM

"There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time. I'm going to use that word."

No, this isn't a quote by Trent Lott but by Senator Robert Byrd D-WV on Fox News Sunday in March of 2001. Byrd was a Grand Wizard of the KKK 40 years ago but his DEEDS are less important than Trent Lott's "Thurmod's a great guy and we all should have voted for him cause it's his birthday" comments.

The people calling for Lott's resignation are the same people who argued that Robert Byrd's use of the "N" word last year was to be forgiven because of his advanced age (85). Of course nobody seems to think he was too old to have been Chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee....

And if Lott's comments contain hidden racist sentiments then so to do Democratic Senator Carl Levin who said in the Senate's September 24th tribute to Thurmond "... I am pleased to join my colleagues in paying tribute to Senator Strom Thurmond and honoring him for his unparalleled record of public service to this Nation...." "In 1948, while he was still Governor, Thurmond ran for President as a State's Right Democrat and received 39 electoral votes, the third best showing by an independent candidate in U.S. history."

The reason Lott is being attacked for these so called "racist comments" are because the Democrats lost in the midterm elections, in part due to Republican efforts to court the black vote.

In Maryland supporters of Kathleen Kennedy Townsond, the democratic candidate, passed out Oreo Cookies during a debate as a slur against opponent Bob Ehrlich's running mate Michael Steele, a black man. But calling a black man an Oreo isn't seen as racist?

In the 2000 presidential campaign they aired spots in Texas saying in essence that if Bush were elected President black men would be dragged thru the streets: "On June 7th, 1988 my father was dragged 3 miles behind a truck until his life was taken from him, all because he was Black. I went to Governor George W. Bush and begged him to help pass a Hate Crimes Bill in TEXAS. He just told me no. Our community will not be dragged down. Stand up against hate crimes." Using the horrific death of a black man to insinuate that the Republican party would turn a blind eye to the issue isn't racist?

I'd say the Lott debate is a clear example of the cat calling the kettle a racist.

Posted by: Duane on December 13, 2002 11:23 AM

"Using the horrific death of a black man to insinuate that the Republican party would turn a blind eye to the issue isn't racist?"

No...why is that racist? He has personal experience with hate crimes and opposes Bush because he doesn't support hate crimes legislation. I don't see that it's racist.

The oreo cookies thing--sounds pretty bad, though. Someone really did that?

However, the argument 'other people did it so we are hypocritical when x does it and we come down hard on x' just isn't a good argument. If those people were racist--they should have been criticized in the same way. But that doesn't have any bearing on a time when someone is racist and they are criticized...They still deserve it.

Posted by: Miel on December 13, 2002 12:37 PM

And I will post the longest comment of them all:


Regarding Robert Byrd: The ďwhite niggerĒ comment was unquestionably disgusting and offensive. However, I think itís a bit unfair to quote it out of its surrounding context. Here is the full text of what the said:

"My own mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practiced that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time, you want to use that word. But we've all -- we all -- we just need to work together to make our country a better country."

So, as repugnant as that language was, it seems to have been (bizarrely) inserted into a larger plea for racial equality. Who knows why he chose to express himself that way? But he was quite rightly harshly castigated for the comment, and he promptly apologized. Regarding his Klan membership, here is what he had to say to Bernard Shaw in 1993 regarding his greatest mistake (this is via Joe Conason):

"That's easy," he replied. "The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I've said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts. That was an albatross around my neck that I will always wear."

It seems clear, to me at least, that he has repudiated his racist past and he wants to make up for it. I think WV could do a little better than Byrd, but I canít stop them from electing them if they want to. He is not, however, the Democratic minority leader. The Dems had the sense to remove him from prominent party leadership years ago.

Regarding Carl Levin (whoís an alum of my college!): I think youíre being a little bit silly. You canít see the difference between Levinís and Lottís statements? The first sentence of Levinís you quoted was a bland an unspecific birthday party accolade, which Lottís was not. The second was a mere statement of fact. It did not express any wish that Thurmond had won or any suggestion that the victory of a candidate who ran on a single issue pro segregation platform would have been good for the country. For that matter, all statements are interpreted in the context of what we know about a person. Carl Levin voted in favor of hate crimes legislation. Iím not saying that should become some kind of litmus test to decide whether someoneís a racist, but it is clear heís not some kind of closet segregationist, which Lott, considering everything we know about him (the Southern Partisan, cavorting with the CCC, the amicus brief on behalf of Bob Jones U.), probably is. For that matter, heís Jewish, so itís really hard to believe heís strongly identified with a bunch of Southern racists. Most of them donít like Jews very much either.

Regarding the Oreos. I hadnít heard about that, and I just looked it up on the net. Thatís also disgusting. But also, and important note, even George Will, who I know has been pretty deceptive in the past, did not try to assign responsibility for the Oreos to the Townsend campaign. Some people passed out Oreos. Thereís no evidence that a Democratic politician or any member of her campaign passed out Oreos.

Regarding the Gore television ad. As Miel has well stated, thatís just not racist. George Bush did something (or rather, he failed to do something). The ad reported it. Itís a perfectly legitimate political argument to say failing to pass hate crimes legislation is turning a blind eye to the issue. There are many legitimate counter arguments to that point, but it doesnít mean the ad was racist. If the ad had said something like ďGeorge Bush, like most white people, doesnít care about blacks being murdered,Ē THAT would have been racist.

Of course there are racists in the Democratic Party. Of course they deserved to be criticized with whatever severity the offensiveness of their views, comments, and actions deserves. But youíre failing to demonstrate that Lott is just one in a sea of Democratic segregationists, if thatís what youíre trying to do. Heís just not.


Miel was again right on when she said that the first amendment wasnít being violated, so I wonít retread that point. But on this:

>>If you believe in democracy -- and I do -- then you have to face the fact that sometimes people you don't like wind up in office, and it's not your place to overturn the will of the voters, no matter how wrongheaded you think those voters might be.

Iím not aware that anyone has called for Lott to resign from the Senate (maybe they have and I havenít heard about it). Theyíre calling for him to step down (or be unseated) as Majority Leader. No oneís trying to subvert the will of the voters; theyíre trying to subvert, or influence, the will of the members of the Senate who elected him as Majority Leader, and Senators are, of course, beholden to the voters.

>>Few people are criticing Lott for actually embracing segregation policies

Maybe few people are criticizing Lott for actually embracing segregation policies (though I donít know itís so few), but as anyone who has been reading TPM this week, it actually looks like he does support segregation policies, or at the very least, heís willing to go around to the CCC and Southern Partisan and speak in the code that clearly indicates that to them that he does. Thatís just what ďI support Statesí RightsĒ and ďJefferson Davis was a great statesmenĒ and etc. etc. mean to these people. They accept that a national politician can no longer say ďAll the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro [in the NPR clip it sounds a lot more like ďniggerĒ] into our homes, our schools, our churches," so they accept the coded signals that indicate support for their views. And even if the politicians donít long for the return of Jim Crow in their heart of hearts, theyíre still telling these hate mongers that itís okay to, and thatís, well, not okay.

That said, I am beginning to feel perversely sorry for Trent Lott. The press, as a group, is so stupid. They are either sheep or wolves; either they unquestionably accept something absolutely unacceptable (Bush lies about the tax cut during the campaign, Lottís crypto-racism), or they get a taste of blood, decide they have enough cover from the group to join in the hunt, and then they indulge in a feeding frenzy. I truly think Maureen Dowd is a force for evil in the world. I read her column on Trent Lott and it was so clear to me that she was very indifferent to any kind of sense of professional responsibility to truth telling as a journalist; she is capable of doing nothing but receiving conventional wisdom and spewing it out as if its supposed to be witty. She typifies this disease of stupidity and cowardice. So if Lott's ouster as Majority Leader would really mean that this kind of appeal to the racist Republican South will be no longer tolerated by both Republican and Democratic politicians and the establishment press, then it will be a good thing. But I suspect thatís not the case. The press and the politicians will have changed their story about this one figure, not the practice. If Lott goes, itís only going to be a symbolic bloodletting, and in the future it will just be business as usual. I always feel sorry for the whipping boys who have the bad luck to suffer for the sins of a much more extensive group. Anyone going to call for John Ashcroftís resignation?

Posted by: Katie on December 17, 2002 7:52 AM

And the basis for calling for John Ashcroft's resignation would be. . .?

Posted by: albert on December 17, 2002 10:09 AM

I was being a little bit melodramatic. But he should be called onto the carpet and asked for a very public, very sincere denunciation of Southern Partisan, the CCC and everything they stand for. Here and here is helpful background on why.

Posted by: Katie on December 17, 2002 1:03 PM

Ok... by the mere statement of 'We voted for him and we're proud of it', he has plainly stated that he voted for a segregationist (since he was running on a segregation ticket) and is PROUD that he voted for the lead runner on the segregation ticket. Aside from that, he actively sought to keep blacks out of his fraternity while in college and this hasn't been the first time he has made this 'shadowy' statement... it's actually the THIRD! It wasn't just a slip of the topngue. He really is proud to have voted for the only person ever to run on the segregationist ticket... PROUD of it.

So... you say can say that this was a mistake (that happened three times), that he may have had views that reflected the times in his youth but the fact that he KEEPS making statements like this that are OBVIOUSLY in direct conflict with what the American people believe to be GOOD TASTE and common decency is in opposition with him rtepresenting them.

Therefore, he had to go.

Posted by: Xeno on December 25, 2002 9:21 PM