Lott of Nerve

It's unclear whether Sen. Trent Lott's (R-Miss.) apology this afternoon for his remarks praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's (R-S.C.) segregationist past is enough to save his job as incoming majority leader. What is clear is that he should step down from the leadership post for holding views out of step with -- and an outrage to -- most Americans.

Lott's latest apology came just a day after President Bush criticized him for his comments that "do not reflect the spirit of our country." Earlier this week, Lott appeared on Sean Hannity's radio show -- a safe enough venue -- to say he was sorry, but the White House felt Lott needed to be more emphatic about his remorse. So at his press conference in Mississippi today, Lott called segregation and racism "immoral." But considering Lott's history of making racially insensitive remarks and his poor record on civil rights -- he voted against extending the civil rights act and against passing the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday -- you have to question how badly he really feels.

On Dec. 5, Lott noted that in 1948, Mississippi voted for Thurmond for president. "We're proud of it," he said. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either." But that wasn't the first time Lott had praised Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign. (Indeed, on Friday, Lott admitted that he often went up to Thurmond on the Senate floor and told him he would have made a great president.) His legislative positions aren't any better. In 1979, while in the Mississippi legislature, Lott opposed school busing. More recently, he's spoken to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which describes itself on its website as "the true voice of the American right." A photo of Lott is featured prominently on the group's website, praising him for urging the Army to "protect U.S. borders against the illegal alien invasion." (An article about the Lott controversy that is featured on its site, by Michael Andrew Grissom, states: "Blacks, who are very clever, have discovered a formula which has neutralized every public official in this country. It involves intimidation, threats, retribution, incessant demands, extorting money from corporations, attempting to bankrupt companies in court, and in general making themselves as obnoxious as possible so that no one will say or do anything which might displease a black man or woman.")

Lott defends some of his actions -- such as urging his college fraternity not to support the integration of its members -- by saying that they happened many years ago. "You could say that I favored segregation then," the 61-year-old senator told Time magazine in 1997. "I don't today." But the problem for Lott is that he didn't just say these things or adopt these positions once -- he's followed them throughout his life, including during his years in the House and Senate. His office has released a rather lame list of accomplishments for blacks while he was majority leader (mostly honorary awards) and he said Friday that he plans to work with black leaders and ask forgiveness. His other defense -- that he and former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.) were just playing a game of oneupmanship when Lott made his comments about Thurmond -- is insulting. You don't say the same thing twice unless you really mean it.

President Bush's decision to rebuke Lott publicly was a sign that Lott's days as a party leader may be numbered. (His rambling and ineffective speech on Friday certainly didn't help.) Of course, Senate Republicans, not the president, choose their party leader, but not all of them appear to be backing the three-term senator. "It raises questions about his judgment," Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) told The New York Times. Conservatives, eager to see Lott replaced with someone they believe will toe the hard-right position better, are calling for his head. So is his local newspaper, The Mississippi Press, which believes Lott doesn't deserve the majority leader job. "That is a position that should not be held by anyone who holds the beliefs that Lott espoused," the paper's editorial intoned.

Republicans should also be eager to get rid of Lott for purely public relations reasons. After their sweep of the elections this fall, they were in a prime position to talk about their agenda for next year and how they plan to accomplish it. Lott's comments are an unwelcome distraction. And for a party that claims to want to attract black voters -- and which is losing its most prominent black lawmaker, Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) -- Lott's remarks aren't likely to help its outreach efforts.

Of course, you can understand why Lott doesn't want to step down. After losing his majority leader title a year and a half ago when Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) bolted the GOP, Lott beat the odds that Democrats would keep the Senate and reclaimed his old job. There's also the issue of history. Betty Koed of the Senate Historical Office told me, "There's never been a case when a leader has been forced into resignation." Not the kind of footnote Lott wants by his name in political science textbooks.

In the end, Lott may well resign -- but probably not for the right reasons. He should resign because of the offensive nature of what he said about Thurmond and what it meant to a country that still harbors wounds from the battle over civil rights. As he acknowledged Friday, as the Senate leader from Mississippi -- the state most identified with our country's segregationist past -- Lott's words on matters of race and civil rights carry extra impact. But his ouster will probably come for other reasons. There are only so many chances that he'll have to get his message across, and Republicans are running out of patience. If the press continues to find damaging information about Lott's past -- which doesn't seem to be in short supply -- Republicans will likely suggest that Lott step aside. After all, there are only so many ways to say you're sorry. Especially when you don't really mean it.

Mary Lynn F. Jones is a senior editor at the Prospect.