Trent Lott's failure to explain himself.

Trent Lott's failure to explain himself.

Trent Lott's failure to explain himself.

Politics and policy.
Dec. 17 2002 4:24 PM

Nothing but Contrition

Trent Lott's failure to explain himself.

Answering his first question on Black Entertainment Television Monday night, Trent Lott reached for all the buzzwords of Christian cleansing: "forgiveness … amends … redemption." He called his Dec. 5 praise for Strom Thurmond's presidential campaign "repugnant," as though some demon had uttered it. "I'm asking people to forgive my mistake and give me a chance," said Lott.

The interview changed no one's mind, because Lott never explained why he had changed his own. Three times, host Ed Gordon asked Lott to explain what he was thinking when he did or said things that seemed racist. Three times, Lott repudiated his past and said he would change. It's a familiar story: sin, repentance, reform. But there has to be some narrative logic of transgression and transformation, some connection between past and present that gives people reason to think the sinner will sin no more. Lott offered none.

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

Gordon opened the interview by asking Lott what he meant when he said "we wouldn't have had all these problems" if Thurmond had been elected president. Lott replied, "I was talking about the problems of the defense and communism and budgets and governments sometimes that didn't do the job. But again, I understand, Ed, that that was interpreted by many the way it was. And I should have been sensitive to that."


Sensitive? Nobody thinks Lott's comment was insensitive. They think it was either racist or colossally obtuse, not just to feelings but to history. Lott needed to explain how he could have thought of Thurmond's candidacy without thinking of segregation. He didn't even try. Absent such an explanation, viewers were left to assume that Lott had been thinking about segregation and was now lying about it, which meant he hadn't truly repented.

Next, Gordon turned to Lott's segregationist past. Here's how the conversation went.

LOTT: In order to be a racist, you have to feel superior. … I don't believe any man or any woman is superior to any other.

GORDON: But did you always hold that view?

LOTT: I think I did. ...

GORDON: So when you moved to hold blacks out of your fraternity, for instance, in college—Sigma Nu—you didn't feel superior at that time?

LOTT: I did not. But, you know, that was wrong at that time.

GORDON: What was your feeling?

LOTT: You know, at the time I was not as active a participant as some people would have said. But that's irrelevant now. That was 30, 40 years ago. And I have learned—

GORDON: But there is relevance to the past.

LOTT: Oh, absolutely. But there is also change from the past and redemption, Ed. Who among us does not mature?

Lott's answers were utterly incoherent. Unwilling to face his past, he claimed to have been racially enlightened all along, leaving viewers to wonder whether a man who thinks he was enlightened when he opposed the integration of his fraternity understands what he's saying. Lott's condemnation of his "wrong" past conduct, unaccompanied by an account of why he engaged in it, did nothing to explain why it's "irrelevant now."

Finally, Gordon asked Lott why he had voted against affirmative action, the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and extending the Voting Rights Act. In each case, Lott gave a few words of explanation and changed the subject before anyone could understand him. "I was for consolidating the Washington and Lincoln birthdays into one, but that now pales in comparison to what needs to be done, and how we can help to bring America together," he said of the King holiday. Affirmative action? "You can get into arguments about timetables and quotas," Lott shrugged, preferring to talk about the black staffers he had hired. "My actions," he concluded nonsensically, "don't reflect my voting record."

Conservatives who had agreed with Lott on those issues, for all the defensible reasons Lott glossed over, must have been banging their foreheads on their TV sets. Lott's evasions and talk of repentance left the impression that all three positions—against the King Holiday, against the Voting Rights extension, and against affirmative action—were part of the country's racist past.

Poor Lott. He wants to be seen as a new man. He just can't explain who the old one was, or where one ends and the other begins. People think "this is nothing but contrition because you find yourself in a rough spot," Gordon warned the senator. When you don't know what you're sorry for, sorry isn't enough.