Trent Lott's hypocritical accusers.

Politics and policy.
Dec. 13 2002 7:45 PM

The Lot of Them

Trent Lott's hypocritical accusers.

Friday afternoon, Trent Lott, the incoming Senate majority leader, apologized yet again for an allegedly racist comment he made at the 100th birthday party of his colleague, Strom Thurmond. Many conservative pundits have discounted Lott's apologies, arguing that he should step down to restore his party's honor. They want to be tough and principled. But calling Lott a bigot and throwing him overboard is the easy way out. Lott's apologies tell a truer and more common story. He has forgotten the importance of the civil rights movement. He tries to be nice even to extremists in his own party. He preaches a message of federal non-intervention that coincides neatly with the agenda of white racists. If Lott has to step down for those sins, then so should others.

By Lott's own admission, he defended segregation 40 years ago. He says he's changed. If you don't believe him, why believe Thurmond, Sen. Jesse Helms, or others who claim similar conversions? Why not condemn everyone who spoke at Thurmond's party?

William Saletan William Saletan

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

Those who single out Lott say he's different because his racism persists. They cite four pieces of evidence. First, his statement at Thurmond's party. Second, a similar statement he made in 1980. Third, his positions on bills and lawsuits important to blacks. Fourth, his relationship with the quasi-racist Council of Conservative Citizens.

Let's start with Lott's comment at the Dec. 5 party. He said: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we [Mississippians] voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." Many critics think that by "problems," Lott meant integration. He says he meant problems with national defense, law enforcement, and balancing budgets. Based on the inherent meaning of his words—as opposed to what he should have remembered when thinking of 1948—Lott's explanation makes more sense. "Problems" is plural. "All" implies a broad range.

True, segregation was the central idea of Thurmond's 1948 campaign. It's hard to believe Lott meant something else. But it's harder to believe he didn't. Everyone who spoke at the party knew his words were being aired on C-SPAN. To believe Lott meant to praise segregation is to believe he meant to end his career.

Furthermore, Lott was 7 years old in 1948. If you can't believe he could have forgotten what that election was about, try to explain this excerpt from his Wednesday night interview on Larry King Live:

KING: But you don't think [Thurmond would] have been a better president, say, than Harry Truman, who defeated him that year?
LOTT: You know, I'd have to go back and look at the election of that year. Harry Truman obviously did a lot of great things for our country, and, you know, I was trying to remember who the Republican nominee was—
KING: Dewey. Tom Dewey.
LOTT: Yes, it was Dewey. I don't—you know, I couldn't tell you one thing about what Dewey's policies were at the time. I remember the headline, you know, that "Dewey Wins."

Next there's the 1980 incident, in which Lott followed a Thurmond speech in Mississippi by saying, "If we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." Again, the quote is vague. Lott's accusers think he must have known what he was saying since he said it twice. But repeating a line, particularly a vague and polite one—"Yes, dear," "You look great," "Jim is a good friend and a great public servant"—is often a sign that you aren't thinking about what it means.

Detractors think Lott's 1980 comment must have been racial because of his positions at that time. In 1979, he favored a constitutional amendment to ban court-ordered school busing. In 1981, he voted not to extend the Voting Rights Act. That year, he signed a Supreme Court amicus brief defending a tax exemption for Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating.

These positions are compatible with the theory that Lott was a racist. But they're also compatible with the theory that he was standing up, as he claimed at the time, for the autonomy of neighborhoods, states, and religious schools. In the Bob Jones amicus brief, he argued, "To hold that this religious institution is subject to tax because of its interracial dating policies would clearly raise grave First Amendment questions." Dedicating the Jefferson Davis presidential library 15 years later, he praised Davis for understanding that the Constitution "was created to restrain government."

Finally, there are Lott's appearances before the CCC in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He says he was just being nice. "It was one of those events that you have almost every two years," Lott told radio host Sean Hannity Wednesday. "You have them all over the state. You don't usually ask who's sponsoring this thing." Friday, Lott gave a similar account of his praise for Thurmond. "I was trying to make [him] happy," said Lott. "It was just an effort to encourage an elderly gentleman to feel good."

I believe Lott on all counts. He forgot about the civil rights movement. He was habitually oblivious to it. In his mature years, he's been driven not by racism but by a preoccupation with the sovereignty of states, neighborhoods, and private institutions. He spoke kindly to the CCC and praised Thurmond's 1948 campaign because he wanted to be nice, even if that meant overlooking bigotry. In short, he's guilty of all the sins that, in his view, add up to an alibi. And he's far from alone.

How many conservatives who denounced Lott this week appreciate the civil rights movement? How many have made careers out of deriding feminism, as though the women's movement achieved nothing? How many worship Ronald Reagan, who helped defeat the Equal Rights Amendment? How many defend Helms, who in 1990 defeated a black opponent by complaining in an ad that whites were losing jobs to blacks because of quotas? How many speak congenially to people who support them for what they know are ugly reasons? How many worry about the overlap between the positions of segregationists and the positions of people such as themselves, who defend the rights of states, neighborhoods, and private institutions? How many refuse to see that you can't be nice to racists without being callous to the people they despise?

If politeness to bigots, comfort with principles congenial to them, and amnesia about struggles for equal rights are now crimes worthy of ending people's careers, then let the inquisition begin. Lott's accusers will be sorry they started it.