A Lott of foofaraw and nonsense

Posted: Dec 17, 2002 12:00 AM
While Iraq boils and bubbles, and the economy stumbles-starts-stumbles along, the media and the political elite are atwitter ... over a throwaway remark at a centenarian senator's birthday party? The appropriate response, I believe, would be "Give me a break!" It is useful at moments like these to reflect on Malcolm Muggeridge's sage observation to the effect that arguments are never about what they are about. What propels them is underlying, and unresolved, tensions. The row over Trent Lott's salute to the J. Strom Thurmond presidential candidacy of 1948 has nothing to do with anything Lott actually said or meant. To take seriously the contention that the senator's remarks are worth five seconds' scrutiny requires the assumption that what he really meant was, hey, boys, get out them white hoods you've been a-savin' for when we starts re-segregatin' them schools. If the senator meant any such thing, his conveyance to the nearest padded cell becomes a national priority. If he didn't mean it, what in the name of Julia Ward Howe are we talking about? Three things, I venture to guess. 1) The Democrats have only occasionally felt this good since Harry Truman beat not just Ole Strom but also Tom Dewey and Henry Agard Wallace. The hangdog expressions of early November are gone. Once-dead eyes are alight with joy. Second Amendment credentials notwithstanding, the Republicans have gone and shot themselves in both feet. Whoopee, alleluia, and other assorted ejaculations of glee! 2) Conservatives, especially those who hold Lott's legislative abilities in low esteem, have been afforded cover to call for his replacement. The editors of National Review sounded precisely that trumpet call last week. Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who would like Lott's job, began Sunday, on national TV, to campaign for it. 3) Reconstruction goes on. It will go on, evidently, for quite a while -- perhaps until the last white Southerner to draw breath in the pre-civil rights South has gone to join Forrest and Beauregard around the smoldering campfires of Eternity. The conservative white Southerner, it seems, never gets a free pass in public life. South of Mason-Dixon and east of the Big Bend, "conservative" means -- to the political and media elite -- endlessly nostalgic for Jim Crow. Along comes Trent Lott, declaring "Segregation and racism are immoral ... I've seen what that type of thing in the past can do to families, to schools and to communities. I've seen personally the destruction it's wrought on lives, good people ... I have learned from the mistakes of our past. I have asked and I'm asking for forbearance and forgiveness as I continue to learn from my own mistakes and as I continue to grow and get older." But that's just words, right? -- an obvious attempt to wriggle off the hook. A Mississippi senator? The New York Times and its imitators know the darkness of his heart. It is not wholly clear what Lott's critics hope to achieve beyond his discomfiture or ruin. Maybe for them that suffices. What it contributes to healing and respect for the rights of Americans in general is a murkier proposition by far. A rhetorical molehill becomes Mount Everest for no reason whatever. No good reason, that is. We fall into bad habits, we humans, without necessarily meaning to. Among the worst of our current national bad habits is that of crying "racist" or (after the custom of Mr. Justice Clarence Thomas' calumniators) "Uncle Tom," in supposed re-affirmation of the 13th Amendment and the Underground Railroad. Nobody would call occasionally inept, seldom eloquent Trent Lott the greatest thing that ever happened to American politics. The Senate, not to mention the cause of conservatism, might even be advantaged by his retreat to the back benches. What advantage, even so, accrues from all the slobbering attention wasted on a basically worthless story? Apart, I mean, from the obvious fun of bagging, skinning and dressing one more Southern good ole boy?