Trent Lott must resign

Posted: Dec 12, 2002 12:00 AM
``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.'' --Trent Lott at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party. WASHINGTON--Trent Lott must resign as Senate majority leader. It's not just that no one who has said this can lead an American political party. It's that no one who could say something like this should be an American leader. It is a pity that a long and distinguished career such as Lott's should come to this. But there is nothing you can do to Lott's statement--turn it, twist it, flip it, spin it--to make it any less appalling. It was not ``a poor choice of words," as he later pleaded. It was a perfectly clear choice of words articulating a perfectly clear idea. Had Lott stopped with Thurmond-for-president, 1948, this might have been written off as idle and presumably insincere birthday flattery for a very, very old man. But Lott did not stop there. He added, fatally, that America would have been better off had it embraced Dixiecrat segregation. With that, Lott cut off any retreat. This is not just the kind of eruption of moronic bias or racial insensitivity that cost baseball executive Al Campanis and sports commentator Jimmy the Greek Snyder their careers. This is something far more important. This is about getting wrong the most important political phenomenon in the last half-century of American history: the civil rights movement. Getting wrong its importance is not an issue of political correctness. It is evidence of a historical blindness that is utterly disqualifying for national office. To start at the beginning. The civil rights movement brought about the abolition of the American racial caste system. Enfranchising a minority is, in and of itself, a singular achievement. But the civil rights movement rose above sectarianism and insisted on defining itself far more broadly as a vindication of America's very purpose. Martin Luther King succeeded in taking a liberation movement that could easily have turned irredeemably divisive and deeply anti-American--note the bitter endemic conflicts engendered by other liberation movements around the world--and dedicated it instead to a reaffirmation of American principles. The point is not just what King and his followers did for African-Americans, but what they did--by validating America's original promise of freedom and legal equality--for the rest of America. How can Lott, speaking of ``all these problems over all these years," not see this? Perhaps even more important than the civil rights movement's ends, however, were its means. That was its other great gift to America. The civil rights movement transformed nonviolence from a notion into a norm--an act of astonishing political creativity whose legacy has been so thoroughly assimilated into contemporary American life that today we hardly appreciate it. The fact is, however, that the civil rights movement forever set the standard for social transformation in America. We owe to King--his vision, his courage and his discipline--the fact that every subsequent social movement from environmental to gay rights to antiwar has almost automatically embraced nonviolence. Political violence has, of course, not been abolished. But the nobility and success of the civil rights movement has delegitimized the very idea of political violence--giving us a country that now routinely achieves profound social change in an atmosphere of comity and mutual respect rarely seen anywhere else in the world. That is what King and his followers gave America. That is what Thurmond and his followers resisted. And that is what Lott still cannot see today. Let's be generous to Thurmond et al. and say that in 1948 they knew not what they did. But it is now 2002. The story is told. How can Lott not know it? What is so appalling about Lott's remarks is not the bigotry but the blindness. One should be very hesitant about ascribing bigotry. It is hard to discern what someone feels in his heart of hearts. It is less hard to discern what someone sees, particularly if he tells you. Lott sees the civil rights movement and ``all these problems over all these years." He missed the whole story. Backbenchers might be permitted such a lack of vision. Leaders are not. Lott must step down.