I couldn't make up my mind about Trent Lott right away. First, it was hard not to believe the embattled Senate Majority Leader's explanation for the furor: namely, that his remarks about how much better things would have been had Strom Thurmond become president in 1948 were just an "ill-considered" gaffe, a ham-fisted attempt to toss a bouquet to Mr. Thurmond at the near-ossified senator's 100th birthday party.
My thinking went like this: Any man who becomes Senate majority leader must be a consummate political animal, a pol of the highest order. Someone who instinctively knows that opening his raincoat to flash a little nostalgia for the segregation era -- the obvious interpretation of his testimonial to Mr. Thurmond's segregationist presidential candidacy -- will induce sudden political death, not to mention a sulfurous afterlife. How could Mr. Lott have meant what he seemed to say? It had to be a dopey mistake, something not entirely out of character.
That was one point. Then there was the feeding frenzy that followed in which Mr. Lott was soup du jour. Just watching race hustlers Al "Tawana Brawley" Sharpton and Jesse "Hymietown" Jackson sharpening their knives over Mr. Lott was enough to suppress the appetite. Meanwhile, they had bigger quarry in their sights: the precious conservative ideal of colorblind justice, which inspires political opposition to such race-based policies as affirmative action, quotas and set-asides. If, feeding-frenziests maintain, Mr. Lott is a segregationist at heart -- or may be tarred as one -- then the policies he stands for as GOP Senate leader may be similarly condemned. Many conservatives have called for Mr. Lott's resignation as leader at least partly to forestall this grotesquely distorting line of attack. But it's already begun. Just look at Bill Clinton's despicable, if predictable, response: "I think what they (the Republicans) are really upset about is that he made public their strategy." And maybe those 100 candles on the cake were just a lot of smoke, and that "birthday party" was a secret kickoff for Strom Thurmond's 2004 presidential exploratory committee.
This isn't the first time Mr. Lott has come between Republicans and their principles. In fact, speaking of Bill Clinton, remember impeachment? In January 1999, Mr. Lott met with the 13 House Managers, led by Rep. Henry Hyde, after the House of Representatives momentously and unexpectedly impeached the 42nd president. As David P. Schippers, chief investigative counsel for the impeachment, writes in his book, "Sell Out" (Regnery, 2000): "I'll never forget the very first words out of his (Trent Lott's) mouth: 'Henry, you're not going to dump this garbage on us.'" Garbage? Seems that Mr. Lott had "important matters" to address -- as opposed to two articles of impeachment ("garbage") -- and couldn't be bothered with a constitutionally mandated Senate trial, as evidenced by the sham proceeding that followed.
But that, as they say, was then. The question is whether "Partygate" is enough to convince Republican senators to stop following their leader. I sure hope so. There probably remains some inclination to defend a man under attack for a supposedly offhand comment made at a photo-op with frosting, but the imbroglio is no longer so simple. Just look at Mr. Lott's behavior since. He certainly hasn't handled his remarks like a gaffe; indeed, he has repeatedly prostrated himself as though seeking near-heavenly absolution (maybe he needs it).
Nor has he handled Republican principles with care; in fact, rather than defend race-blind policies, he's jettisoned them -- suddenly, he supports affirmative action "across the board," and promises to "move" a color-conscious agenda through the Senate -- all in an attempt to save what is obviously most important to him: personal power.
Yuck. Still more stomach turning than the reeducation of Trent Lott, though, are the lessons it may wrongly teach. In seeking to repudiate color-coded segregation -- a historically Democratic institution, let's not forget -- Republicans may be planning a retreat from colorblind policy. Nothing could be worse.
According to the Washington Post, the controversy has already intensified the debate within the administration over how to handle an upcoming landmark Supreme Court case on racial preferences at the University of Michigan. While a number of administration lawyers, led by Solicitor General Ted Olson, hope to file a brief against Michigan's race-conscious admissions policy, White House counsel Alberto R. Gonzales and some political aides oppose venturing any opinion.
"Some conservatives," the newspaper reports, "fear that Republican lawmakers and the administration will feel compelled to overcompensate for the damage Lott did by backing down on judicial appointments, tax cuts, the minimum wage, Social Security and any other matter that can be seen through a racial prism."
Courage, boys and girls. The Lott affair is one big reason not to retreat from the colorblind position. It's high ground -- and now, even more than before, it's of urgent importance to share the view.