The buzz at Vice President Dick Cheney's Christmas reception Tuesday (Dec. 10) was about remarks by Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) at a 100th birthday celebration for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
Lott said, "I want to say this about my state. 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. " Lott was referring to Thurmond's 1948 presidential candidacy as a "Dixiecrat, " a party formed to promote segregation and forestall the nascent civil rights movement. Lott limply apologized for his "poor choice of words. " How about a poor choice of thinking?
One prominent Republican at the Cheney reception told me, "All that Lott needed to add was an invitation to join him at a cross burning following the ceremony. " Another prominent Republican feigned gagging and rolled his eyes at the mention of Lott's remarks. "What could Lott have been thinking? " asked another Republican.
All that was needed was a band playing "Dixie " to complete the offense, not only to blacks but also to the "New South " and those Republicans who have tried, but mostly failed, to attract a new generation of black voters to their party. Lott's comments have given Democrats a sound bite they can effectively use in the next election, not only to hold their base but possibly attract offended swing voters.
Democrats were in full hypocritical mode over Lott's comments. Apparently oblivious to those Southern Senate Democrats who once opposed the civil rights movement under the banner of "States' rights, " Democrats ignored one of their own, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Byrd used the "N " word in an interview last year with Tony Snow on "Fox News Sunday. " In 1993, President Bill Clinton awarded the former segregationist Sen. J. William Fulbright - his fellow Arkansas Democrat - a Presidential Medal of Freedom and lauded him, saying, "The American political system produced this remarkable man, and my state did, and I'm real proud of it. "
Hypocritical or not, the party of Abraham Lincoln does not need the language of segregation. It doesn't need to be reminded of the old times that should be forgotten of Jim Crow laws, poll taxes, lynchings, segregated schools and the literal devaluing of blacks as subhuman.
Among some conservatives, Lott was already in trouble for cutting too many deals with Democrats when they controlled the Senate. Lott is believed to lack a strong ideological foundation, preferring to perpetuate his own power and perks rather than advance a uniquely Republican agenda. His remarks at the Thurmond party may contribute to unease among his fellow Senate Republicans, some of whom believe it is time for a new leader.
If Republicans have any hope of attracting more black voters (President Bush won a measly 5 percent of the black vote in his home state of Texas and only 10 percent nationally, despite a sincere effort to attract support), the least the party must do is to bury the rhetoric of a past that should only be resurrected for study by historians and politicians determined to make amends for it.
There can be no more wistful appeals by whites to past "glories " when blacks were treated as inferior and racial jokes were part of the "entertainment " at all-white country clubs. These messages are heard in the black community far more than the occasional appeals from elected or appointed black Republicans who are often seen as tokens and servants of the white establishment.
Why are Republicans still struggling with this issue? Are they in need of highly paid consultants to point out the obvious? Why in 2002 are we even discussing something that should have "gone with the wind "?
Trent Lott might as well be a Democratic Party mole, placed among Republicans to cause his party severe political damage. Republican senators, some of whom have wanted to move in a new direction, must now decide whether Lott is a hindrance to the party. Will it be politics as usual, or will Senate Republicans clearly break with the past and proclaim not only to black Americans, but to all Americans, that their party is the party of emancipation, not segregation?