Washington, D.C. -- OK, OK, you all want my reasoned reflections
on the Hon. Trent Lott, R.I.P. That is perfectly understandable. I am, after
all, one of the country's few nationally syndicated African-American
columnists of the conservative persuasion, along with Tom Sowell and Walter
Williams. I was identified as a member of this rarefied category some years
ago by a black militant offended by the opportunism of "the black
conservative columnists, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams and Emmett Tyrrell."
Ever since, I have tried to be a credit to our little group, even if Tom and
Walter merely laugh.
Now turning to the late Sen. Lott, he has been condignly
punished. I approve. His joke about the wisdom of the Dixiecrats' 1948
campaign platform, his unconvincing apologies and his bull-headed insistence
on remaining Republican leader of the Senate are, to borrow the line from
the 19th century Frenchman, worse than a crime, they are a blunder. As I am
neither God nor Lott's psychotherapist, I am in no position to explain his
motives or the condition of his conscience during these torrid days.
However, as an observer of politics, I can say with confidence that anyone
who blunders as egregiously as Lott has is not fit for leadership.
Had Lott been perceptive, he would have been swifter to sense
the national media's sudden seizure of conscience. He would have apprehended
the coming storm and quickly stressed that his remark was a tasteless joke.
He would have apologized abjectly, without any of the stubborn
qualifications that made his apologies so incomplete.
Then, if the frenzy continued, he would have shown the high
character and keen judgment to take a powder, at least from his leadership
role in the Republican Party. Republicans simply cannot display
insensitivity to any of the liberals' handful of sacred (albeit
opportunistic) issues -- for instance, racism and sexism. Even certain
sensitive aspects of the environment are out of bounds for Republicans --
for instance, the gaseous effluvia of our noble trees -- a touchy subject
that cost Gov. Ronald Reagan some bad ink in campaign '80.
Liberals can display insensitivity and survive. The Rev. Jackson
can speak of "Hymietown." The Rev. Sharpton can encourage attacks on Jewish
businesses. The Hon. Robert Byrd can use the term "white nigger." A black
congressman can approve of calling Colin Powell a "house slave." After the
ephemeral hullabaloo subsides, the foul-mouthed liberal remains standing and
strutting. Yet, no Republican can get away such vulgarity.
Lott should have recognized that our politically polluted
Kultursmog ) maintains a double standard
for liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. The double
standard is unfair but not without its redeeming value. In recent years, we
have seen that a double standard in public life is better than no standard
at all. Imagine the coarseness of our society if all public figures were
free to act as corruptly as the Jackson or his parishioner, Bill Clinton.
Lott was a victim of a double standard and of something else
that is equally unique to modern American politics. It is popularly known as
the "media feeding frenzy." Actually, it is something quite complicated. A
politician can manifest certain peculiarities for years, but suddenly
conditions change. A sudden change in moral fashions arrives. Or perhaps it
is a slow news period. Possibly the politician's oddity becomes more
extreme. All of a sudden, a torrent of unfavorable news stories comes down
Sen. John Tower was destroyed by such a "media frenzy" in the
1980s when nominated as secretary of defense. Suddenly, his years of very
public partying became shocking and a disqualification from office. Sen.
Robert Packwood suffered similarly. The Clintons were ever fearful that the
phenomenon would end Clinton's presidency, for instance, after the
Troopergate stories or the reports of campaign irregularities or the
exposure of la Lewinsky or Clinton's apparently inescapable obstructions of
justice and acts in contempt of court.
Clinton survived perhaps because his indiscretions were both
crimes and blunders. Society can only, perhaps, focus on one set of
indiscretions at a time; Clinton's cross-disciplinary indiscretions brought
society to befuddlement and paralysis.
Anyway, Lott's blunders really have been massive, suggesting
something that has yet to be mentioned. Some politicians grow in office;
some decline. Under fire, an individual has an opportunity to show his true
character. The character that Lott has shown is low-grade. The stiff-necked
meanness that he demonstrated in his early attempts at apology, which became
even more repellent when he fought to maintain his leadership and let fall
that he might allow the balance to again shift in the Senate to the
Democrats, reveals a baseness that we had not seen before. Under fire, Lott
showed an ignobleness that is embarrassing.