Trent Lott does no favors for Republicans fighting off old stereotypes

It wasn’t too long after I started working for a Conservative “movement” organization that someone cited “Evans Law,” named after M. Stanton Evans, a well-known conservative columnist. It’s to the effect that “When our friends achieve a position in which they can accomplish something useful, they’re no longer our friends.”

Of course, it’s possible that we conservatives are often satisfied with officeholders who merely don’t do affirmative damage. A “do-nothing Congress” is thus preferable to one that accomplishes things, often the wrong things.

But the once and future Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, has managed to step in it in what should have been the most harmless of circumstances, a 100th birthday celebration for retiring Sen. J. Strom Thurmond, who long ago became the oldest man ever to serve in the Senate. In his tribute to the frail senior Senator from South Carolina, Lott referenced Thurmond’s 1948 third-party bid for the Presidency, observing that “I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Sometimes, observing politicians is a lot like being a cat burglar. You watch the house, see that a light is on, and wonder if anyone is home. Lott’s comment causes one to wonder not “What was he thinking,” but whether he was thinking. Certainly, that was the response of the partygoers, whose silence was deafening.

For even if Lott had forgotten his history, the partygoers had not. Thurmond’s 1948 run for the White House was not as a Republican, and not as a Democrat (which he was at the time). It was motivated by opposition to the civil rights agenda advanced by Harry S. Truman in the Democrat Party. Thurmond’s split to form the “Dixiecrats” was primarily motivated by one thing and one thing only: support for racial segregation.

To be sure, Thurmond has made one of the more remarkable political journeys of the 20th century. From his roots as a typical race-baiting Southern Democrat, he epitomizes the American journey from legally-endorsed racial segregation to a society which rejects racism and largely rejects racial classifications (except in well-meaning but misguided efforts at “affirmative action”). While the segregationist candidate in 1948, as a Senator he became the first from the states of the Confederacy to hire blacks for his staff. And perhaps the most amazing political sight I am ever likely to see in my lifetime was his efforts championing the Supreme Court nomination of Clarence Thomas.

But Lott’s comments, while they might have mentioned these facts, were most notable for his suggestion that a Thurmond victory as the segregationist candidate in 1948 would have avoided “all these problems.” What “problems” he was referring to is somewhat mysterious, since the senator did not elaborate, but the comments were somewhat akin to giving Saddam Hussein a fully-armed B-2 bomber loaded with hydrogen warheads.

For, oh my!, how the race hustlers have swooped, with the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson demanding Lott’s resignation, if not from the Senate itself, then at least from his post as Majority Leader. For there is nothing like a little race-baiting to get headlines, and that’s what Sharpton and Jackson thrive on.

It’s a difficulty that the GOP doesn’t need, either. While voters have elected a GOP majority in the Senate for five consecutive cycles (only the perfidy of Vermont Sen. Jim Jeffords gave the Democrats, temporarily, control of the Senate), Republican majorities in the House and Senate are slim.

And Republicans simply won’t get the same pass that Democrats do. The outcry over Lott’s cryptic comment already significantly exceeds the minor uproar over comments made by West Virginia Sen. Robert C. Byrd a few years ago. A Democrat, Byrd had once been a leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and repeatedly used the “n-word” in an interview. Byrd got a pass from civil rights “leaders,” none of whom called for his resignation. Likewise, some so-called civil rights “leaders” attack the image of the Confederate battle flag on South Carolina’s state ensign, but ignore that the governor who put it there was Fritz Hollings, now a Democrat Senator.

Republicans are making gains in the black community with a message of shared values. Failing public schools are not an issue that discriminates among races, and it is elements of the GOP which are championing school choice. Voices in support of school choice may not be nonexistent in the Democrat Party, but they are few and far between in a party which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the National Education Association the nation’s largest teachers’ union.

Moreover, the notion that racism is somehow welcome in the GOP simply cannot be sustained when two of Republican President George W. Bush’s closest foreign policy advisors are National Security Advisor Condeleeza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell, America’s most prominent black jurist is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, appointed to the court by the first President Bush, and perhaps the most eloquent and effective spokesman for the GOP in the past few years is Oklahoma’s Congressman J.C. Watts. The days of the liberal “plantation” are ending, and when they are finally over, it is difficult to imagine how Democrats will win elections without 80-90 percent of the black vote.

Lott’s comments, though, injure these efforts, and lend aid and comfort to race hustlers who want to perpetuate the myth that the GOP is racist, and that the only party for black Americans is the Democrat Party. “Might have beens” about the possibility of a Thurmond presidency in 1948 is nothing but nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow and segregation, and there is little that Lott could do to explain away whatever it was that motivated his comment.

And while the long knives may be out for him amongst Senate Republicans, Lott must quickly and contritely apologize and put this issue behind him. Just as Jim Crow and segregation are, blessedly, behind us as a nation.

An attorney, Young lives with his wife and their two sons in Montclair.

Similar Posts