If there’s an uplifting aspect to Trent Lott’s nostalgic endorsement of Dixiecrat barbarism, it isn’t his strange apology, in which he pretended not to have said what he plainly did say. What gave cause for hope was the response of conservatives, whose fury obviously shook the Republican leader. After years of coddling the bigots in their midst; after years of tolerating and encouraging racially divisive campaign tactics; after years of subsidizing and publicizing phony racist “scholarship”-at long last, the better minds and hearts on the right decided that the time had come for their movement to draw a bright line.
Conservative author Andrew Sullivan demanded on his Web log that the Republicans demote Mr. Lott or “come out formally as a party that regrets desegregation and civil rights for African-Americans.” Former Bush speechwriter David Frum didn’t go that far in National Review Online, but he too expressed shock and anger at the Republican leader-as did Weekly Standard editors William Kristol and Fred Barnes, author David Horowitz and others on the right. (At the lower end of intellectual evolution, Sean Hannity tried to excuse Mr. Lott, as did Rush Limbaugh.)
Now the question is whether the outrage on the right over Mr. Lott’s remarks was real-or whether his fellow conservatives were merely upset that he had caused them such embarrassment.
For anyone who missed Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party on Dec. 5, a brief recapitulation of events will be helpful. Readers who depend on The New York Times to learn about current events might not have heard about the bizarre remarks Mr. Lott made on that occasion. Anyway, they need to be repeated until they sink in everywhere.
“I want to say this about my state,” the Republican leader boasted. “When Strom Thurmond ran for President, we 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.”
The centenarian Senator from South Carolina broke from the Democratic Party in 1948 to run for President on the ticket of the National States’ Rights Party. Ol’ Strom and his Dixiecrat cohort violently opposed the Democrats’ early, halting steps against segregation and lynching. There can be no confusion about what an endorsement of their platform meant then, or what it means now.
Nor is there any doubt that Mr. Lott understands exactly what he was talking about. His first political sponsor, the late Representative William Colmer, ran for Congress on the Dixiecrat line in ’48. Mr. Lott eventually ran for Colmer’s seat-but by then, the Dixiecrats had become Republicans.
All of this sorry history is familiar to conservatives and liberals alike. At the beginning of the civil-rights movement, the great conservative thinkers like William F. Buckley Jr. and Patrick Buchanan were on the wrong side. They took up their pens on behalf of “Southern civilization,” such as it was, against the civil rights of black Americans. Some have expressed regret since then; others haven’t. More recently, in reaction to affirmative action, conservatives have claimed to be “color-blind” disciples of Martin Luther King Jr. Rarely does the right offer any positive alternative to redress the legacy of racism.
No honest commentator or politician on the right could have had any doubts, even before this incident, about the true sentiments harbored by Mr. Lott. With his tongue loosened by drink and camaraderie at the Thurmond celebration, he said what was on his moldy mind. He betrayed the same feelings a few years ago at a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens, an outfit descended from the White Citizens Councils of the 50’s that was expelled from the Conservative Political Action Committee for its blatant racism and neo-Nazism.
The C.C.C. has honored Mr. Lott on many occasions, although he only affected to repudiate them after their connection was exposed in 1998. Six years earlier, he had told the C.C.C.’s national conference in Greenwood, Miss.: “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let’s take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries!”
So Mr. Lott is a liar as well as a racist. But again, that has been obvious for a long time. To quell the outrage over his remarks at the Thurmond event, his spokesman finally emitted a brief statement ludicrously claiming that the problem was “a poor choice of words.” That wasn’t the problem. The problem was the meaning of the words spoken by the Republican leader.
Trent Lott is not fit to lead the United States Senate. His “apology” is unacceptable. The pusillanimous response to his latest misconduct of most Democrats-including their Senate leader, Tom Daschle, but with the admirable exception of former Vice President Al Gore-has been awful. But deposing Mr. Lott is a Republican responsibility. Republican Senators must either vote for him again in January or choose an untainted leader. We will then learn the content of their character.