To the poetic minded, Sen. Trent Lott's accidental outing as a terminal good ol' boy on the 100th birthday of Strom Thurmond, the South's eldest member of that particular and peculiar club, had the assuaging effect of a perfectly rhymed couplet.
Where better to expose oneself as belonging to another century than at the centennial celebration of a man whose decaying physicality spoke metaphors about the racist ideas he once espoused. Watching Thurmond sitting there, faded and oblivious to his own presence, buzzards circled in the mind's eye.
That Lott effectively lynched himself by his own ignominious remarks, waxing sentimental about Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential bid, is what the muse must have had in mind when he inspired the term poetic justice. What goes `round comes `round.
Does that make Lott a bigot? Maybe, maybe not. But his words in wistfully recalling the Dixiecrat party platform -once in 1980 and again in recent days -suggest, as Charles Krauthammer eloquently wrote, that Lott missed the whole story of the civil-rights movement. By his "terrible" choice of words, as Lott put it, the Senate majority leader made clear that he's too dense to lead a nation that neither misses nor wishes to resurrect the good ol' days.
Meanwhile, higher up on the map in a parallel universe called The North, Cardinal Bernard Law's stepping down as archbishop of the Boston archdiocese following the priest sexual-abuse scandal has a similar ring of justice. America's highest-ranking member of the world's oldest extant boys' club, Law looked the other way while grown men of the collar sexually abused the children in their keep.
Law's denial of a truth that ruined dozens of lives doesn't make him a pedophile any more than Lott's careless eulogizing of an old man necessarily makes him a racist. But Law, like Lott, missed the big story, the part about protecting innocents from evil and banishing sinners from their midst.
To add irony to the too-clear parallels between the defrocking of Law and the outing of Lott, the two men both began their careers in Mississippi, if on opposite sides of the philosophical divide. Law began his in 1961 in Natchez, Miss., fighting for civil rights. During that same period, Lott was fighting racial integration of his Sigma Nu fraternity at Ol' Miss.
This week, as these two otherwise dissimilar men made simultaneous headlines, it was hard not to notice the common subtext of their lives: Two men at the peak of their careers were fallen upon their own swords.
More poignant, and frankly refreshing, is that few have rushed to break their falls. Why? I haven't checked with astrologers or geologists to see whether there's been some celestial realignment or a shifting of the tectonic plates, but there does seem to be something loose upon the land.
Whether it's the trickle-down, no-nonsense effect of Sept. 11 or an inevitable evolutionary step, what seems clear is that our national conscience seeks higher ground. In the face of real enemies -at the threshold of a war that could leave few prisoners -Americans have neither time nor patience for denial or divisiveness within.
Lott's backdoor commendation of Thurmond's promise to keep blacks in their place creates a gaping, ruined canyon where better men and women had hoped to leave a healed wound and a hairline scar. It and he simply cannot stand.
At this writing, Lott's fate remains undecided. With luck and good counsel, he'll take his cue from the cardinal and step aside. Meanwhile, there is cause for optimism here. By his error, or gaffe, or unintentional honesty, or whatever we end up calling Lott's political suicide, he has forced the Republican Party and all Americans to declare themselves.
If the GOP isn't the party of white men, then what is it and why does it look so white? If Lott isn't a racist, then what is he and why does he seem like one?
Inadvertently, Lott has done a great deed by blasting the race issue wide open. There's no more tiptoeing around
it, no more pretending it isn't really there.
Lott's legacy, should he ascend to the higher plane illuminated by Law's graceful exit and abandon his post, may yet be one to applaud. It is this: Single-handedly Trent Lott advanced the cause of racial harmony by reminding us of what we once were and what we wish never to be again.