Anybody can put his foot in his mouth but making it a habit is too much, especially when you are in a position where your ill-considered words can become a permanent albatross around the necks of other people whom you are leading.
That is the situation now, in the wake of Senator Trent Lott's latest gaffe, his widely publicized statement that we would have been better off if Senator Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. Senator Thurmond ran on a platform of continued racial segregation.
Does Senator Lott have any idea what racial segregation meant to black Americans -- and, indeed, to many white Americans, whose support was essential to passing the landmark civil rights legislation of the 1960s that did away with Jim Crow in the South?
Let me recall a personal experience from that era. Although I lived in New York, during the Korean war I was a young Marine who was stationed in the South. On a long bus ride down to North Carolina, the bus stopped very briefly in Winston-Salem so that the passengers could go to the restrooms. And in those days there were separate "white" and "colored" restrooms.
The bus stopped next to the white restrooms and I had no idea where the restrooms for blacks might be located -- or whether I could find it in time to get back to the bus before it left. So I went to the men's room for whites, leaving it to others to decide what they wanted to do about it.
I figured that if I were going to die fighting for democracy, I might as well do it in Winston-Salem and save myself a long trip across the Pacific. It so happened that nobody said or did anything. But I should not have had to face such a choice while wearing the uniform of my country and traveling in the South only because I was ordered to.
This was just one of thousands of such galling experiences -- many others were far worse -- that blacks went through all the time during the era of racial segregation that Senator Thurmond was fighting to preserve as a candidate for the Dixiecrats in 1948.
If Senator Lott spoke without thinking about all this, that might be one thing. But he made the same asinine statements back in 1980 and apparently learned nothing from the adverse reactions it provoked then.
More important, such statements are going to live on as long as Trent Lott is leader of the Senate Republicans. Whatever the issue and whatever the election, Senator Lott's statements are going to be a recurring distraction from the serious concerns his party, the Senate, and the country will be confronting.
The changing demographics of the country mean that Republicans over the years will have to make inroads into the minority votes that now go automatically to the Democrats. Remarks like Senator Lott's will be a permanent albatross around the necks of Republican candidates trying to win the votes of blacks or of others who want no part of a racist past that was overcome at great cost.
The position of black Republicans will be undermined especially, if not made untenable. And any blacks considering becoming Republican candidates, or even Republican voters, will have to have some long second thoughts.
As someone who is not a member of any political party, I will not be directly affected. But any American who wants to see the two-party system working will be affected when one party's self-inflicted wounds make its long-run viability questionable in the face of changing demographics.
Back in 1998, Representative Bob Livingston was scheduled to become Speaker of the House, just as Senator Lott is now scheduled to become Majority Leader in the Senate. But when a personal embarrassment in his life became public, Congressman Livingston announced his resignation, in order to spare his party.
While Bob Livingston resigned from Congress, though he had violated no Congressional rule, all that Senator Lott would need to do to spare his party would be to step aside from the role of Majority Leader in the Senate. Will he do it? Time will tell.
A tin ear and a loose tongue are a bad combination for any publicly visible leader, and Senator Lott has shown both on other occasions and on other issues besides race.