The Silence of the Cats

Trent Lott still refuses to speak frankly about racism.


Herding Cats: A Life in Politics, by Trent Lott, New York: Harper Collins/Regan Books, 312 pages, $27.50

Harold Pinter recently won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Trent Lott will never win that award. But the two have something in common. Pinter's characters avoid discussing the things that matter most, so their silences say more than their words. Lott's new autobiography, Herding Cats, starts and ends with the incident that prompted its publication, but in between it offers barely a grunt about the issue underlying that episode.

At a 2002 celebration of Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday, Lott said his state was proud to have backed Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead," he added, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Thurmond had run as a segregationist, and critics accused Lott of wishing for an alternative American history without integration. Actually, he was just trying to flatter a dying old man. He had used similar words in 1980, but few noticed at the time since he was just a mid-level member of the House minority. Now he was the top Senate Republican and was about to regain the title of majority leader. Moreover, he spoke while the C-SPAN cameras were on, which would enable newscasts to replay his fateful words over and over. Unhappily for him, critics linked the comment to his roots in Mississippi's muddy past, and he had to quit his leadership post.

In this book, Lott seeks to rehabilitate himself. He recounts his astonishment at his critics, saying that he has employed African-American aides since 1975. "So how could they accuse me of being callous to inequality?" he asks.

This rhetorical question could have led to a probing analysis of Lott's relationship to his home state, which has the nation's highest share of African Americans. Yet for most of the book, he maintains a Pinteresque silence about race.

Lott briefly mentions that he was attending the University of Mississippi when James Meredith became its first black student. White students protested, but Lott recalls urging his Sigma Nu fraternity brothers to shun violence. In a moment of seeming candor, he notes that his role was mainly passive. "I must confess that I was in the ranks of the clueless," he writes. "I believed then that segregation was wrong and that it was cruel, but we were living in a world our ancestors had created for us."

Call it uncandid candor. In a 1997 interview, he had a different memory: "Yes, you could say that I favored segregation then. I don't now." After the Thurmond incident, Time's Karen Tumulty reported that Lott had been more than passive. At a national convention of Sigma Nu, she wrote, he had fought admitting blacks to any of its chapters. Lott does not give his version of that story in Herding Cats.

Lott is equally dodgy about his years as chief aide to William Colmer, the Mississippi Democrat who chaired the House Rules Committee. "Like Strom Thurmond," Lott says, "he was well past his firebrand days, and had become more moderate on civil rights issues as each year passed." Since Colmer still opposed civil rights bills, it is hard to tell what Lott means by "moderate." In 1969, according to The New York Times, Lott drafted a letter for Colmer lamenting "enactment of legislation unduly favorable to the Negro race."

On Colmer's retirement in 1972, Lott successfully ran for his seat as a Republican. After 16 years in the House, he succeeded arch-segregationist John Stennis in the U.S. Senate. He says he was "ecstatic" to win 13 percent of the black vote in that election. "It was the start of a slow march of African Americans into the Republican ranks," he writes. Slow indeed. Lott neglects to mention his 2000 re-election, when he got 11 percent of the black ballots. He won the race by getting 88 percent of the white vote.

On Capitol Hill, Lott developed a reputation as a shrewd student of process and personality. He is the only man in history to serve as party whip in both chambers. In 1996, when Bob Dole resigned to devote his full time to his presidential race, Lott became majority leader.

With this background, Lott should have written a memoir rich in detail and insight. Instead, Herding Cats recycles familiar war stories and contains an annoying number of factual errors. It botches the names of fellow members and the years in which they served in Congress. It confuses the 1985 tax reform with the 1982 tax increase, and it even blames President Reagan for proposing a separate Department of Education. (That dubious honor belongs to President Carter.) During the years the book covers, Congress dealt with racial busing, voting rights, and affirmative action. Lott has nothing to say about these topics. Race disappears from the book until he gets back to the Thurmond story that frames his narrative.

Lott tells of his damage control efforts, recalling that he went on Black Entertainment Television "and groveled through another confession." He admits that the interview was a mistake but says that "you do, and say, strange things when you're desperate." It was worse than he lets on. When BET interviewer Ed Gordon asked whether he supported affirmative action, he said, "Absolutely across the board." He also promised to reconsider his support for judicial nominee Charles Pickering. The man had good character, Lott stammered, "But, having said that, you know, I'll have to weigh all my actions differently and more carefully."

The scene was worthy of Koestler or Orwell. One could picture Lott continuing: "Okay, Mister Gordon, if you hold up four fingers and say there are five, I will see five. I absolutely abjure all my thought crimes. And I love Big Brother!"

At first blush, it seems hard to explain Lott's performance. Surely he was not worrying about black support at home, since he had so little to begin with. And it's not as if endorsing affirmative action was going to bring him a deluge of white support. Republicans are supposedly the masters of the "race card," so how did Lott pull a joker? And why does he sidestep racial issues in his book?

To understand what happened to Lott, remember that he is not alone. A great unreported story in American politics is the silencing of overt debate on racial issues. When was the last time a major GOP politician came out squarely against racial preferences? After the Supreme Court upheld discriminatory admissions policies in the 2003 decision Grutter v. Bollinger, few Republicans had anything critical to say.

While Republicans have little chance at the black vote, they do hope for a share of Latinos. Although some surveys suggest otherwise, they think an attack on preferences would scuttle their Latino prospects. They also face pressure from business, which has surrendered on the issue. Discrimination in the name of diversity helps executives avoid protests and boycotts, and they cringe at the idea of revisiting the question.

The most potent cause of the Republicans' silence is fear of the "racist" label. Liberal Democrats have always seized every possible opportunity to link Republicans to bigotry. In most cases, the charge is baseless–but there's a catch. Only a few decades ago, Democratic segregationists such as Strom Thurmond and Jesse Helms did indeed move over to the GOP. As long as such people held high positions in the Republican Party, Democrats could use them as rhetorical battering rams. (Yes, there is a double standard. As Republicans like to point out, former Klansman Robert Byrd is the ranking Democratic senator. But he has escaped the wrath of civil rights organizations by moving left over the years.)

Lott is a transitional figure. Although the worst of segregation was over by the time he entered Congress, he did not free himself from the past. For a long time, he had a warm relationship with the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor to the racist Citizens Councils. In 1981 he filed a brief in a Supreme Court case concerning Bob Jones University. The IRS had revoked its tax-exempt status because it forbade interracial dating. Lott argued that "racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."

During the Thurmond furor, the liberal blogosphere used those examples to make Lott a symbol of GOP racism. By defending him, Republicans feared, they might expose themselves to the same accusation. With his friends going silent and his enemies getting louder, he knew he had to give up the leadership.

Lott's critics engaged in Pinteresque silence of their own when they omitted a key line of his Bob Jones brief: "Schools are allowed to practice racial discrimination in admissions in the interest of diversity." For backers of affirmative action, that statement remains uncomfortably accurate. In Herding Cats, Lott could have made a strong case for colorblind equality by revising his argument. As long as we allow one form of discrimination, he could have said, we foster other forms. Instead of using the comparison to back up Bob Jones, he could have used it to condemn racial preferences.