WASHINGTON -- Sen. Trent Lott, reeling from poor strategic handling of an unanticipated crisis, on Thursday afternoon sustained a potentially mortal cut from George W. Bush. Lott's inner circle was stunned, not by the president's harsh criticism, but by what was not said. He did not "put a cap" on the feeding frenzy, failing to commend Lott for service to country and party.
That failure constituted a conscious decision by President Bush. He was determined to avoid a debate over whether Lott should resign as Senate leader. By saying nothing good about Lott, Bush was feeding the furor. The president's aides are well aware of this, but contend they can do nothing about it. Consequently, Lott's leadership remains in jeopardy.
This is a classic case of Republicans eating their own. Democrats gather around disgraced colleagues, most famously Bill Clinton, but also Sen. Robert Byrd, the Senate's senior Democrat. Unlike Lott, Byrd used overtly racist language, but got away with it. It was typically Republican that the president did not telephone his Senate leader until he had spoken to a predominantly black audience in Philadelphia one week after Lott's infamous remarks. Jack Kemp, Lott's longtime political ally, assailed him without warning. These attacks seemed prompted by criticism of Lott rather than what Lott said.
After Bush's speech, a national GOP political operative said Lott had one week to stop the bleeding. "Less than that," one of the senator's aides told me. Once the president spoke, Lott decided to hold his Pascagoula, Miss., press conference Friday night, in which he pleaded for "forbearance and forgiveness." Although stunned by Kemp's comments, Lott took his old friend's advice to meet soon with blacks.
At first, prominent Republicans did not see Lott in serious trouble with his declaration at Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration that the country would have been better off had he been elected president on the 1948 segregationist ticket. When Democratic attacks began, Lott was advised by Republican counselors the storm would soon blow over.
Lott did not see the peril because of what he really meant. While Thurmond is a geriatric miracle, it has been a long time since anybody engaged him in serious political discussion. Typically, Thurmond would rave about the beauty of Lott's wife, Tricia, and Lott would caution him not to "steal her."
Another set piece dialogue had Lott -- tongue-in-cheek -- wishing that Thurmond had been elected in 1948. The birthday party comments were previewed dozens of times by Lott in private encounters with Thurmond. The birthday audience's applause suggests it saw Lott was just kidding the centenarian. Turning a private joke into a public joke, however, produced a train wreck.
The Congressional Black Caucus and the Rev. Jesse Jackson instantly seized on Lott's remarks to play the race card. Prominent Democrats were slow on the pickup. Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle talked to Lott Monday morning, Dec. 9, and said "I accept" Lott's explanation, adding: "There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently." That afternoon, a Black Caucus member who had worked with Lott -- Eleanor Holmes Norton, the District of Columbia delegate -- said on MSNBC: "I've never seen any scintilla of racism in him."
That night on CNN, Jackson called Daschle "weak," and Daschle two days later demanded "a fuller explanation and apology" from Lott. Further scrutiny of Lott yielded the unsurprising revelation that he opposed racial integration as an Ole Miss fraternity boy in 1962. That overlooks the Deep South's remarkable transformation. While nearly all white politicians were segregationists then, none is today -- including Trent Lott.
Lott was late in recognizing the feeding frenzy. His incremental responses were insufficient, aggravated by phoning radio and television programs instead of appearing on camera.
Conservative activists and publications have joined the demand that Lott resign. Democrats played the race card, and conservatives responded on cue. It is now up to the Senate Republican Conference whether the Black Caucus and the news media shall pick the Senate Republican leader. George W. Bush is saying he has no dog in this fight.