For all the beauty and dignity of its surroundings, official Washington and its journalistic retinue exist in a psychological condition reminiscent of a suburban high school. There are the popular kids, there are the gossips seeking popularity, there are the nerds and, as in any caste system, there are the outcasts.
Even Trent Lott is learning that it’s possible to wake up one morning as head cheerleader and fraternity president, greeting an endless parade of friends-and then wake up again a few days later as Piggy, the unfortunate victim in Lord of the Flies , with that mob of friends sharpening their spears.
The most important difference between high school and Washington is that national politics requires discussion of “issues” as well as poll-measured popularity. What observation reveals is how much the latter tends to influence the political handling of the former, even in a White House that affects to disdain the ebbs and flows of public opinion. Consider the changing attitudes of press secretary Ari Fleischer (and his various unnamed associates) during the days that followed Mr. Lott’s unguarded endorsement of Strom Thurmond’s 1948 Presidential candidacy.
At his briefing on Dec. 10-four news cycles after those unwise comments-Mr. Fleischer sounded staunchly supportive of Mr. Lott. On that subject, he was unusually clear in his responses to questioning: “I think that from the President’s point of view, Senator Lott has addressed this issue. He has apologized for his statement, and the President understands that that is the final word from Senator Lott in terms of the fact that he said something and has apologized for it …. The President has confidence in him as Republican leader, unquestionably.”
That confidence wasn’t widely shared, as the President appeared to realize on Dec. 12, when he edged away from Mr. Lott. “Every day our nation was segregated,” said Mr. Bush, “was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals.” His demurral was eloquent and, according to his aides, deeply felt. But immediately after that speech, Mr. Fleischer made a point of telling a New York Times reporter that “emphatically and on the record, the president doesn’t think Trent Lott needs to resign.”
By Sunday, Dec. 15, The Washington Post reported that the White House “is hedging its bets.” Senior aides were divided about whether to defend Mr. Lott against restless conservative pundits and rivals in the Senate. “Compassionate conservatism,” already discredited by the comments of former Bush aide John DiIulio in Esquire , was endangered by the specter of a burning cross. Over the days that followed, Mr. Fleischer returned to non sequitur mode, refusing to repeat his earlier endorsements of Mr. Lott. His White House associates were whispering off the record that since the Republican leader seemed doomed to demotion, the President wouldn’t intervene to rescue him.
Executing Piggy won’t necessarily expiate the sins of the rest of the tribe, however. It may only call further attention to them.
Mr. Lott’s incautious comments at the Thurmond birthday party were a symptom of what has been wrong with the Republican Party, but they weren’t the disease. Removing him from leadership is a necessary act of moral hygiene, but it isn’t a cure. Dating back to Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which first attracted Mr. Lott from the ranks of the Dixiecrats into the modern G.O.P., Republicans have appealed in various ways to “seg” sentiment across the nation. At the same time, they have tried to convince blacks and moderate whites that their party is too modern and too tolerant to countenance racism.
The political result has been a form of racial schizophrenia. The President’s father sided with Barry Goldwater and the National Review against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. A few years later, the senior Bush voted for an open-housing law. When he ran for President in 1988, his supporters employed the inflammatory racial symbolism of the Willie Horton ad to win over white voters.
Leading figures in the Republican hierarchy today carry heavy racial baggage. As a Supreme Court clerk, Chief Justice William Rehnquist wrote memoranda supporting the notorious “separate but equal” jurisprudence of Plessy v. Ferguson . As governor of Missouri and later in the U.S. Senate, Attorney General John Ashcroft maintained ties to “white power” advocates in his home state and displayed little concern for racial equality. The President himself, and many of the conservatives who now demand the ouster of Mr. Lott, have never evinced much concern about the blatant bigotry of Jesse Helms, another ancient symbol of the bad old days.
And now, conservatives such as George Will are furious with Mr. Lott not only for what he said about Mr. Thurmond, but for what they regard as the groveling tenor of his apologies.
Dumping Trent Lott won’t be the end of this discussion, nor should it be. With or without him, his fellow partisans still have a lot of explaining to do.