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Published: 12/13/2002

Lott's loose lips

In public, a whole bunch of angry Democrats are calling for Trent Lott's perfectly coiffed scalp, but could they privately be hoping that he becomes majority leader in the Republican-controlled U.S. Senate next month as planned?

Nothing like having one of the most visible national leaders of the political opposition unmask himself as a racist to re-energize the down-at-the-mouth Democrats.

With a fit-of-candor remark at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, Mr. Lott managed to set back GOP outreach efforts among minorities by about half the old segregationist's age.

“I want to say this about my state,” he reminisced about Mississippi. “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, either.”

While Mr. Lott has since apologized and insisted he really didn't mean it that way, a Mississippi newspaper reported that he said almost exactly the same thing at a Ronald Reagan campaign rally down home in 1980. As with most white southern politicians of a certain age, he is remarkably skilled at the use of racial code words, which convey an unmistakable meaning without actually saying it.

But now even some of Mr. Lott's fellow Republicans are aghast at the insensitivity of the remark.

One conservative commentator, who feels the GOP needs to make the party more attractive to blacks, called the statement “the most emphatic repudiation of desegregation to be heard from a national political figure since George Wallace.”

And the right-wing Family Research Council put out an unusually sharp rebuke. “The damage he's done is considerable,” the group said. “Senator Lott's ill-considered remarks will serve only to reinforce the false stereotype that white conservatives are racists at heart. Republicans ought to ask themselves if they really want their party to continue to be represented by Trent Lott.”

While the whole fuss might be chalked up as a Democratic propaganda victory, Republicans shouldn't let it get that far. They would do themselves a favor by stripping Mr. Lott of his Senate leadership role.

This is the same guy who, in 1981, said “racial discrimination does not always violate public policy.”

The southern Democrats of half a century ago are the southern Republicans of today. Maybe that's why the GOP hasn't had much success convincing voters that it is an inclusive, “big tent” party that welcomes everyone regardless of race, creed, or color. George W. Bush got only 8 percent of the black vote in his razor-thin Electoral College victory in 2000. Come January, there won't be a single black Republican in either the House or Senate.

Sacrificing Trent Lott from its leadership won't give the GOP a huge segment of the minority vote automatically or immediately, but it might demonstrate that the party is not just for white folks anymore.



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