Birthday-cake exegesis

Posted: Dec 16, 2002 12:00 AM
There are two aspects to the Trent Lott story that need focus. The first, What did he intend to say? The second, What are his true thoughts on the subject?

It's hard to believe that Trent Lott's words at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, saying that the country would have been better off if Thurmond had won the election of 1948, are the equivalent of a secret-handshake policy message. Is it suggested that he was saying, "I know that you lost, Strom, but the policies you then advocated are policies which in my role as majority leader, I will attempt to insinuate into national policy"?

A moderately exhaustive probe of the inventory of anti-Lott references, of which journalist Joshua Micah Marshall appears to be the curator, reveals not a single legislative initiative by Senator Lott suggesting racial bias. (We don't count as racist declining to endorse a petition to establish a national commemorative day to honor the three civil rights workers slain in Mississippi in 1964.) It is safe to conclude that Lott was engaged in partygoing hyperbole ("And I say, Strom, let's count on your giving us another hundred years!").

Yes, if Trent Lott had been of voting age, he'd have voted for Thurmond in 1948. So did practically every white voter in that part of the world. Thurmond, after all, carried four states. But given the fact that Thurmond himself -- the candidate Lott said he wished had been successful -- has been sitting in the U.S. Senate longer than any American in history, it seems odd suddenly to concentrate one's resentment on another senator, who was congratulating the guest of honor in birthday-cake prose. If Thurmond could sit on and on in the Senate without disgracing the republic, why not Lott, who was 7 years old when Thurmond ran for president?

What the critics are saying is that however much we can assume that the old days of Jim Crow are behind us, to hear it said from the majority leader of the Senate in 2002 that he wishes things had been different, prejudices right reason. They are correct. And Lott acknowledges that they are correct by apologizing for what he said and classifying it as "terrible."

A case can be made that anyone that careless in his language oughtn't to occupy a high seat in the nation's councils, but much more than that is being said. The New York Times characterized the world of Strom Thurmond 50 years ago as one of "poll taxes and lynchings." That designation is as extreme as anything Lott said at the birthday party.

But the question is legitimately raised: Does the Republican leader in the Senate pine for the days when black men were required to use toilet facilities marked COLORED? One doubts that the specifically Jim Crow features of the old world in the South are those that Trent Lott pines for. When Sen. Richard Russell joined most Southern senators in the late '50s to plead the cause of "interposition," they were asking that the Supreme Court be denied the authority it was arrogating to be the agent of social change.

Randall Jarrell, in his novel "Pictures From an Institution," frames the idea of the nostalgia of one professor with great wit: "He had diabetes and used to get an injection of insulin every day, but I don't believe he ever got one without wishing it was Galen giving it to him. There were two things he was crazy about, the 13th century and Greek; if the 13th century had spoken Greek I believe it would have killed him not to have been alive in it."

It should not be supposed that someone who pined for the days of Rome, or pines for the days of Washington and Jefferson, pines for the restoration of slavery. But Senator Lott will probably have to face it, that whatever else is to be said about the Old South, segregation was an ugly feature of it, and that to think back poignantly about how it was in those golden days requires, if you are a public figure doing the nostalgia, the reiterated expulsion of features of that life. Not the kind of thing that goes well with birthday-cake festivities, but Lott got into this mess, and has now to get out of it.