Trent Lott should step aside

Posted: Dec 12, 2002 12:00 AM
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 Senate leader. 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.