Has a Lott changed?

I don’t usually enjoy being wrong. However, when I heard that Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott had decided to forfeit his position as majority leader — the first time such a thing has happened in the history of the Senate — I must admit I experienced a rather extended moment of joy.

Two weeks ago I said Lott would probably experience more publicly generated heat than he was counting on for the racist comments he delivered at Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration. But I predicted he would probably get away with it. I couldn’t see him voluntarily stepping aside, and I couldn’t see President Bush adding any pressure to that end.

I was wrong. After a presidential rebuke and no fewer than five public apologies, one of which included a sudden and desperate conversion to the gospel of affirmative action, Lott was forced to step down from his post before being allowed to serve for even a single day. There was a deceptive calm before the storm — but when that storm hit, it landed like a blizzard.

Right about here it would seem like shouting hallelujah! would be the right thing to do. The Wicked Lott of the South has been defeated by a sword of his own making, and the Republicans have had their congressional victory celebrations tarnished. There couldn’t be a much better reason for folks of my particular political persuasion to rejoice and make all kinds of joyful noises.

But it’s not over yet. One of the best ways to tell it’s not over is to take another look at how it all began. Anyone who saw a clip of the birthday celebration where Lott uttered his now-infamous quote that Mississippians are proud to have supported Thurmond’s presidential run on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket should have also seen that the crowd applauded and cheered that statement. They did not recoil in horror as was frequently reported. The hushed silence didn’t occur until Lott pushed about an inch too far and said that if Thurmond had won then “we wouldn’t have had all these problems.”

Who knows? Maybe the audience didn’t quite catch on to what Lott was really saying until Lott made it plain. Perhaps they deserve the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps. Still, I can’t help but wonder how those in the room found it so easy to cheer and clap when Lott said Mississippi was proud of supporting one of the country’s most well-known segregationists in the days when he was at his racist peak, but then suddenly became shocked and appalled at the second half of his statement. Isn’t the second half of the statement a logical extension of the first?

Then there was the delayed reaction from the White House. Remember, there wasn’t a peep out of the administration until it became clear that the storm wasn’t going to just fade away. The persistence of the Lott dilemma meant that the senator’s crucially powerful position as majority leader would be irreparably compromised, thereby damaging the entire party as well as the Bush agenda.

Lott wasn’t yanked because he made a racist remark: He was yanked because he had become both a political liability and an Achilles heel. If he had stayed, he would have been used for
target practice by the Democrats — and the Republicans couldn’t have that. This doesn’t mean that some of the Republicans weren’t repulsed by Lott’s raw racism, because some were, but I believe former President Bill Clinton when he pointed out that Lott’s sentiments weren’t nearly as far removed from the gut-level sentiments of the Republican leadership as those leaders pretended.

By the way, anyone who questions whether or not such sentiments are actually prevalent within the Republican Party hierarchy should read Blinded by the Right by David Brock. For years a right-wing insider, Brock also wrote The Real Anita Hill expressly for the purpose of tarnishing Hill’s reputation during the Senate confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. Brock served as a hired — and very well-paid — right-wing journalistic hit man, finally reaching his melting point and spilling the beans on the inner workings and strategies of the party’s far-right wing. Suffice it to say that Lott is hardly alone as an influential right-wing politician who harbors repulsive sentiments on race, not to mention sexuality and other issues.

Moving right along, the Republican Party hopes and prays that the issue of racism being associated with them swiftly fades from the public consciousness now that the Big Bad Lott is gone and the more moderate Bill Frist of Tennessee has been ushered in as the party’s new face. A bit too coincidentally, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, arguably the most powerful African-American woman in the country, recently was a cover story in Newsweek. If that’s not perfect timing, then I don’t know what is. Trent Lott is booted out as a relic of the past, and Condi Rice is trotted out on the cover of a national magazine as the more up-to-date embodiment of Republican inclusiveness. Go Condi! Go Condi!

So that should settle it, right? Well, not quite. It’s not enough to sweep the symptom under the rug and call it a day. The same angry groundswell that forced the Lott story from the back pages to the front should continue to shove just as hard to maintain a discussion about the issues that Lott’s transgressions have brought to the surface.

I’ve heard more than enough people mention how sick and tired they are of “the race problem,” usually while trying to dismiss the topic as unworthy of serious discussion. Lott’s comments prove this is far from the case. If Lott is now dismissed as merely an aberration and an “isolated incident” of racial intolerance on the Hill, then you can rest assured that the business-as-usual atmosphere that was going on before Lott got caught will keep on keeping on as if nothing had ever happened.

It’s not over yet.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area writer and musician. E-mail [email protected]
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