Senator Trent Lott could prove himself a real leader by giving
up his leadership post in the Republican Party. When the Senate reconvenes
in January, Lott is expected to become majority leader, the post he held
when Republicans were last in control of that body. But Lott's recent
remarks at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party have done tremendous
harm, not only to Lott's reputation but to the Republican Party. The right
thing for Lott to do now is step aside in the interest of his party.
Lott has apologized for telling guests at the gathering, "I want
to say this about my state (Mississippi): 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." Thurmond ran for president in 1948 as a breakaway
candidate from the Democratic Party over the issue of racial integration.
Thurmond's Dixiecrat Party platform declared, "We stand for the segregation
of the races and the racial integrity of each race." Thurmond promised
during the campaign, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the
Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
Despite Lott's apology -- which came belatedly, only after
criticism within Republican and Democrat ranks began to mount -- there is no
way to explain away his words. Nor were his comments last week the first
time he's gotten into trouble on the race issue. In 1999, Lott addressed a
local rally of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that has
espoused racist positions. At some level, Lott appears to be comfortable in
such company and, perhaps, to harbor nostalgia for the South's segregated
past. In a free country, Lott is entitled to his views. But the party of
Abraham Lincoln should reject such views and anyone who holds them as its
If Lott insists on retaining his leadership position, he will
hand Democrats a huge issue. Lott's words may already have cost the
Republicans the Senate seat in Louisiana, where Democrat Sen. Mary
Landrieu's campaign effectively used Lott's comments, which were made a few
days earlier, to drive blacks to the polls on Saturday, ensuring her victory
by equating Republicans with racism.
In each of the last three nationwide elections, fear has been
the Democrats' only issue, employed most effectively in the black community.
It didn't work in November, when Republicans won back control of the Senate
and expanded their majority in the House, largely because blacks don't view
George W. Bush as anti-black. But Lott's hateful remarks last week will once
again give Democrats grist for their fear mills. If Lott becomes Senate
majority leader again, we can expect to see his comments replayed ad nauseum
in the next election to prove Republicans want to roll back civil rights
gains of the last half century.
Lott can stop that from happening if he chooses. First, he must
issue a full apology that does more than excuse his "poor choice of words"
that, he said, "conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the
discarded policies of the past." Instead, he must say directly that racial
segregation and discrimination were wrong, and they remain a great stain on
the history of this nation. He must make clear that he supports enforcement
of the nation's civil rights laws and that he opposes racial discrimination
in all its forms.
Second, he should announce that he will not seek a leadership
position in the Senate out of his concern that his inappropriate statements
last week bring dishonor to the Republican Party. No doubt, this will be a
difficult sacrifice for a talented and ambitious man. But it's the right
thing to do and could end up enhancing his reputation, provided that he does
it now, before the drumbeat calling for him to step aside gets any louder.
Already, the Congressional Black Caucus has weighed in, and even the
president of the Family Research Council, a conservative public policy
group, has said that Republicans should "look to a new Senate leader who is
not encumbered by this unnecessary baggage."
Trent Lott can't take back his loathsome words, though I'm sure
he wishes he could. He can prove his character, however, by letting someone
else lead his party in the Senate.