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Beast of the Month - January 2003
Trent Lott, Moderate Republican Senator
"I yam an anti-Christ..."
John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of The Sex Pistols, "Anarchy in the UK"
Trent Lott, at the 100th birthday party of Senator Thurmond.
It was a pretty simple plan: they already had the House in their hands, taken over the Senate and controlled (albeit not by election) the White House. Add to that the Supreme Court was in their fat pockets, all the GOP had to do for two months was smile, get those smirks off their face (an admitted difficulty for Shrub) and not say anything stupid. Then, come January, they would rule the world. (HA HA HA HA!!!)
Sometimes, the simplest plans can become unhinged, and in this case, this is precisely what happened. Once again, the Republican Party proved that its worst enemy wasn't the sniveling Democrats, but their own mixture of arrogance and ignorance. That can be a pretty ugly combination, especially when you're the most powerful political party in the world. In this case, the combo has proven capable of self-inflicted wounds, as sometimes this mixture causes people to accidentally speak their mind. Senator Trent Lott, The Konformist Beast of the Month, can attest to this.
In December, Lott, a staunch conservative (to put it politely) from the state of Mississippi, said something that was pretty damn stupid. Stupid, but honest. At the 100th birthday and retirement party for Senator Strom Thurmond, Lott (who was set to become Senate Majority Leader - a position he had previously held from 1996 to 2001) said, referring to Thurmond and his 1948 run for the presidency, "if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."
Whoops. Actually, he said that about Thurmond in 1980, during a November rally for soon-to-be President Ronald Reagan. No, what he actually said was, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negroes into our homes, our schools, our churches."
Whoops again. That was Thurmond in 1948, when he ran for the presidency to stop all those "problems" that he and Lott have stated opposition to. Okay, here's what Lott actually said: "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."
My bad. That was from the Dixiecrat Party platform of 1948, the party that Thurmond ran for president under, whose real sole purpose of creation was to defend segregation under the banner of "state's rights." (The name, a shortened version of "Dixie Democrat," symbolized the breakaway of Southern Democrats who were increasingly opposed to the party's support for African-American's civil rights under "Give 'em Hell" Harry Truman.) Alright, here's the actual Lott quote, and this time The Konformist really means it: "A vote for Truman electors is a direct order to our Congressmen and Senators from Mississippi to vote for passage of Truman's so-called civil-rights program in the next Congress. This means the vicious FEPC [Konformist Note: Fair Employment Practices Commission, created by FDR to end discriminatory hiring practices in the defense industry] -- anti-poll tax -- anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever."
Okay, The Konformist is pulling your leg one last time: this quote comes, courtesy of Jake Tapper of Salon.com, from the official 1948 Mississippi State Democratic Party sample ballot. Just in case you think we're making this stuff up about what Strom Thurmond and his 1948 run was really about: opposition to sinister laws ending problem-solvers like poll taxes, segregation and, yes, even lynching. All of which were referred to as "our way of life" by Thurmond's own supporters.
The actual quote from Lott can be found at the top of this article (below John Lydon's, of course.) But The Konformist has included the others to show that what Lott said wasn't an aberration, but part of a calculated pattern.
After a furor erupted as his remarks became widely circulated, Lott apologized, and stated with understatement, "A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past." As the quote from 1980 makes clear, he'd been using a poor choice of words for at least twenty-two years.
Here's one more quote: not from Lott, but from Richard Barrett, a non-apologetic racist from the website Nationalist.org. The quote (cited again by Tapper of Salon.com) may be offensive to some, but it is one of the few unabashedly honest things said by anybody of a "conservative" bent about the whole fiasco:
"The reason that you have been elected is because you have been a segregationist, pitted against integrationists in your various elections... [Lott owes an apology] to the memory of William L. Colmer, once Dean of the Congress, who placed you in public life, and who was as staunch a segregationist as ever could be. I still have the photo of you, me and Congressman Colmer, when we all were together in Pascagoula, here on my wall and would like to say that I have been proud of it."
Too bad others, including Lott, couldn't be as virtuously honest in the frenzy that followed. Originally, other Republicans took his "poor choice of words" claim at face value. But words (even the blatantly offensive pattern shown above) matter little as compared to deeds, and that is where the real indictment of Lott is proven. After all, his very history served the bigotry he gave lip service to. Consider the following, cited by Derrick Z. Jackson in The Boston Globe:
* Early 1960s: Fought to keep his Sigma Nu fraternity all white not only at the University of Mississippi but across the nation.
* 1975: Voted against extension of the Voting Rights Act.
* 1976: Voted to ban judges from awarding money to cover the costs of attorneys to victorious plaintiffs in civil rights suits.
* 1979: Voted for a constitutional amendment to ban school busing.
* 1980: Voted against federal administrative penalties for people or firms that are guilty of discriminatory housing practices.
* 1981: Instrumental in President Reagan's attempt to give Bob Jones University, which then banned interracial dating, tax exemptions.
* 1982: Voted again against extending the Voting Rights Act.
* 1983: Opposed Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, citing its cost and "the fact that we have not done it for a lot of other people that were more deserving."
* 1983: Supported an amendment proposed by Senator Jesse Helms to preserve tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University, which then banned interracial dating.
* 1984: Said "The spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform."
* 1988: Voted again against administrative penalties in housing discrimination.
* 1989: Voted against $300,000 for the King federal holiday commission to promote racial harmony.
* 1990: One of only four senators to vote against requiring the Justice Department to categorize hate crimes by race.
* 1992: Told the Council of Conservative Citizens, which has ties back to the white citizens councils of segregation (known by African-Americans as the "downtown Klan"): "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."
* 1994: Voted to support an amendment by Helms to strip federal funding from the King holiday.
* 1994: Voted against the use of racial statistics in death penalty appeals.
* 2001: Was the only senator in a 93-1 vote to oppose the appointment of Roger Gregory, a black judge, to the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Va.
It sure looks like Lott used a pretty accurate choice of words after all.
The silence of the Republicans was originally matched by the silence of the Democrats. Most notably, Tom Daschle, the man who Lott was set to replace as Senate Majority Leader, quickly sniveled in his predictably spineless tone, "Senator Lott, in my conversation with him this morning, explained that that wasn't how he meant them to be interpreted. I accept that. There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone, would like to say things we meant to say differently, and I'm sure this is one of those cases for him, as well." (The irony, of course, is that Daschle's gutless reply came after months of being viciously attacked by right-wing forces as un-American for mildly opposing Shrub's military agenda.) Daschle wasn't alone: as Joe Conason noted in Salon.com, the following Senator's said nothing of importance about the controversy as it swirled: Kerry, Lieberman, Edwards, Dodd, Feinstein, Boxer, Bayh, Harkin, Kennedy and, yes, Hillary Rodham Klinton.
At first, the only Democratic leaders who expressed outrage were Jesse Jackson and Georgia Congressman John Lewis, who, like Jackson, is African-American and a civil rights veteran. The first white Democratic leader to courageously speak up, interestingly, was President Al Gore, who said, "Trent Lott made a statement that I think is a racist statement, yes... It is not a small thing, for one of the half-dozen most prominent political leaders in America to say that our problems are caused by integration and that we should have had a segregationist candidate. That is divisive and it is divisive along racial lines."
Former President Slick Willie later followed him when Republicans began sharpening their daggers in self-preservation. Klinton, unlike his Senator wife, had the guts to say this: "He just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the backroads every day... They've tried to suppress black voting, they've ran on the Confederate flag in Georgia and South Carolina. And from top to bottom, the Republicans supported it. So I don't see what they're jumping on Trent Lott about."
Say what you will about Bill and Al, but they were the only Democratic leaders who spoke out on the patently obvious outrage. Still, besides (at least in the case of Daschle) the lack of bravery explanation, the reason may be as much about pragmatism. For one thing, Democratic leaders may feel a bit unseemly about their own sordid involvement in the history of segregation: after all, it was the Democrats (the party that Thurmond was part of in 1948, remember) who controlled the South during the battle for civil rights from FDR to LBJ. It should be no surprise that the GOP's best defense was an offense: pointing out the hypocrisy of former KKK-member and civil rights opponent Robert Byrd of West Virginia as a leader of the Senate Democrats.
Then there's another pragmatic reason: the fact is Trent Lott is a buffoonish jackass, something that was completely evident even before his foot-in-the-mouth comments of December. Besides his history of supporting bigotry against African-Americans, he had previously voiced anti-gay sentiments, comparing it in 1998 to kleptomania, words he again backed by deeds when he voted against expansion of hate crimes laws to include gays and lesbians in 2000. In short, this is a man who had long attacked the most loyal members of the Democratic Party coalition. He was the perfect punching bag to replace Newt Gingrich, the poster boy of all that was opposed to the Democratic Party.
Which explains why Lott's downfall ultimately came from within the GOP, not without. The bottom line was that Lott was bad for business, the business of serving giant korporations at the expense of everyone else under the banner of "compassionate conservatism." Republicans, to quote Stanley Gates in a Konformist.com article, did a great impersonation of Claude Raines as they feigned to be "shocked, shocked!" But the only thing shocking was that he was overt in what the GOP prefers to exploit in subtext. As Ken Connor, president of the ultra-right but well-connected Family Research Council, put it, Republicans should "look to a new Senate leader who is not encumbered by this unnecessary baggage." Connor added that "his thoughtless remarks ... simply reinforce the suspicion that conservatives are closet racists and secret segregationists." (Which, of course, isn't the case.)
Near the end of his self-destructive scandal, Lott, in desperation, appeared on the Black Entertainment Television (BET) cable channel for an interview. Besides apologizing profusely, Lott did an about face, and suddenly declared support for affirmative action programs. The merits of affirmative action can be debated, but what is beyond doubt, is Lott's record on the issue, again courtesy of Derrick Z. Jackson:
* 1990: Voted against the restoration of affirmative action programs struck down by the Supreme Court.
* 1995: Voted to end affirmative action in federal contracting.
* 1997: Voted against affirmative action in funding businesses for people of color and women.
* 1998: Voted again to end affirmative action in federal contracting.
Which leads to the big question: is Trent Lott a racist? In The Konformist editorial opinion, the answer is no. After all, that would be giving him too much credit, implying he has principles he sticks to. No, his desperate pandering shows a man whose ethical system, though not evil itself, is based on cowardice and servitude to entrenched interests. The simple fact is (unlike Robert Byrd, who, perhaps grudgingly, has become a supporter of a civil rights agenda to reflect his changing support base) Lott had not changed with the times, unaware that beliefs he stated support for were now rightfully considered politically incorrect.
So the good news is that Lott is out as leadership of the GOP, and soon, presumably, out of the Senate. (It is likely he won't seek another term.) The bad news? It was less than two years ago that Lott held the office of Senate Majority Leader that he is now deemed unfit to hold. Indeed, until last month, Republicans in the Senate viewed him as their ideal representative within their body. Before his ignorant utterance, compare the kid-glove treatment that Lott received in the press to that given to his counterpart, Daschle, on right-wing radio and Fox News. (And say what you will about Daschle, one thing he doesn't lack is a sense of basic decency.) As Slick Willie pointed out, based on his history, was anyone in the GOP really surprised with what Lott said? All of which suggests that the problems Republicans have with their ugly promotion of racism (even when covert) has only begun.
In any case, we salute Trent Lott as Beast of the Month. Congratulations, and keep up the great work, Trent!!!
Sen. Lott Apology Fails to Calm Critics
Jim Abrams, Associated Press, December 11, 2002
Brother Lott's real record, Derrick Z. Jackson
Boston Globe, December 18, 2002
Long Live Trent Lott, Stanley Gates
NAACP Calls For Senator Trent Lott To Resign From Majority Leader-Elect Post
NAACP, December 10 , 2002
Gore's Moral Victory, Joe Conason
Dec. 10, 2002
John Ashcroft and the neo-Confederates, Joe Conason
Dec. 16, 2002
Lott's amnesia, Jake Tapper
Dec. 12, 2002
"Poor Choice of Words," Lott Says
Thomas B. Edsall, Washington Post
December 10, 2002
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