Civil Rights

Strom und Drang

What was Trent Lott thinking?


Last weekend, the controversy over Trent Lott and Strom Thurmond had trouble catching fire. Now it won't go away.

The backstory: Last week Thurmond celebrated his 100th birthday. When Lott, the Mississippi Republican who leads his party in the Senate, spoke in the randy ex-segregationist's honor, he alluded to Thurmond's 1948 campaign for the presidency, whose platform was based on maintaining compulsory segregation in the South. Thurmond carried Mississippi, Lott noted—and "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

This understandably upset a lot of people, and anti-Lott commentary raced through the Web, though it took the offline New York/Washington axis a while to notice anything untoward had happened (and a while longer before Republican commentators, who despise Lott for his lousy leadership, seized the opportunity to maim him). On Monday, Lott issued a weasel apology for his "poor choice of words," without explaining exactly what words he would have rather used. (Perhaps something that would have obscured his plain meaning a little better.)

Now The New York Times reports that Lott deployed a very similar phrase in 1980. The occasion was a campaign rally for Ronald Reagan, for whom Thurmond delivered an impassioned speech; afterward, then-congressman Lott declared to the ralliers, "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." Lott has thus had at least 22 years to rework his "choice of words," and he doesn't seem to have revised them very much. I dunno—maybe he prefers his original phrasing. Or maybe he wishes he could've dropped in an actual racial slur or two, for that special Bull Connor zing.

Lott's spokesman Ron Bonjean tells the Times that Lott was referring to federalism, not segregation, in his remarks of 1980: "Clearly, Senator Lott was praising the policies of Thurmond and Reagan, of smaller government and reducing the federal deficit." While it's charming to see the phrases "Ronald Reagan" and "reducing the federal deficit" in the same sentence—in some ways, the world of 1980 seems even more unreal than the world of 1948—this explanation doesn't do much for Lott, even if it turns out to be true. I'd say federalism and smaller government would have been well-served, not if Thurmond had won in 1948, but if they had been advanced by someone capable of seeing such principles as more than a philosophical shield for Jim Crow. What's amazing is that Lott, purportedly standing up for those ideas long after Jim Crow was discredited and killed, would do so by attaching them to an overtly racist presidential campaign. With friends like this, federalism doesn't need enemies.

Should Lott be ousted for his remarks? If I were a Mississippian, I wouldn't vote for him; and if I were a Republican, I wouldn't want him serving as one of my party's most public faces. I'm an independent, though, and a transplant from North Carolina to Maryland. So I'll let Lott's state and party figure out for themselves whether they want this man representing them.