Trent Lott, Bill Clinton, and career politicians

Posted: Dec 17, 2002 12:00 AM
It seems clear to just about every Republican other than Trent Lott that the senator should step down as Senate majority leader. It is clear to those of us in talk radio; it is clear to The Wall Street Journal editorial page; it is clear to the editors of The Weekly Standard; it is clear to black conservative thinkers such as John McWhorter. Why is it not clear to Sen. Lott? The answer is as unfortunate as it is obvious. Sen. Lott is a career politician, and most career politicians have one overriding goal -- political power. This is normal and not necessarily injurious; some career politicians do great good. But when a politician puts his career interests ahead of his party's interests (let alone ahead of his country's), it is injurious. Take the case of President Bill Clinton. Had Mr. Clinton put the interests of his party (let alone his country) ahead of his own, he would have resigned the presidency. Al Gore would then have become president, and in all likelihood Mr. Gore, campaigning as an incumbent president and without the ethically troubled legacy of his predecessor, would have been elected president in 2000. If Sen. Lott put his party's interests above his own, he, too, would resign -- and with far less cost to his career. He would still be a senator, just not majority leader. The issue is not whether Trent Lott, the man, can be forgiven for his awful comments. He can be forgiven. The issue is whether Trent Lott can be an effective Republican leader. The answer is so obvious that only Sen. Lott's preoccupation with Sen. Lott's political career can explain his remaining as majority leader. In case it is not clear why he should resign, let one more Republican make the case: For a senator to say in 2002 that he is proud of his state for being one of only four states to have voted in 1948 for a man whose entire presidential campaign was rooted in racism is simply unacceptable. Yes, all public officials make verbal gaffes, and when they properly apologize, and if their gaffe is inconsistent with their general behavior, they must surely be forgiven. Had Sen. Lott immediately and properly apologized, he might well have earned the nation's forgiveness. But his initial apologies were meaningless. What should Sen. Lott have said and done? In the hope that it will help anyone, public or private, who wishes to be forgiven for a sin, here are two guidelines taken from the "laws of penitence" as codified by the 12th-century Jewish philosopher Maimonides. The first thing a penitent must do is acknowledge precisely what he did and precisely describe it to the injured party. It is entirely insufficient to tell a business partner from whom you have stolen, "I'm sorry for any thing I did that might have hurt you." You must say, "I stole $10,000 from you while you trusted me as your business partner." Second, a penitent must offer restitution. Therefore, Sen. Lott should have said something like this: "My fellow Americans, I owe all of you -- especially black Americans, my state of Mississippi, and the Republican Party -- an apology. I said something awful. Though I did not mean it in this way, I said that I am proud that my state of Mississippi supported a third party in 1948 whose appeal was entirely rooted in racism. The truth is that I am not proud of this. My state was wrong in 1948, and while I am very proud of what Mississippi is today, I am not proud of that part of its past. Those remarks hurt black America, insulted Mississippi, and have given my party, which loathes racism, a bad name. In order to demonstrate how strongly I repudiate these comments and sentiments, I am willing to relinquish my role as Senate majority leader, if my party should so decide. It is far more important to me to undo any damage these remarks made to my country and to my party than to remain in this position." Unfortunately, Sen. Lott did not say these things, but chose to place his political interests over his party's and his country's. For those who ache to see the Republican Party make inroads into black hearts and minds, this choice may turn out as devastating to his party as the choice made by another career politician, Bill Clinton, was to his.