People approach the Trent Lott story in political terms. Does it hurt the Republican Party? Do the Democrats get more out of the scandal if they successfully campaign for Mr. Lott’s departure, or do they gain more if he continues as GOP leader, functioning as a handy daily symbol of the racism that resides in the secret heart of all conservatives? What did President Bush’s comments mean? And by the way, why isn’t the New York Times flooding the zone?
These questions can be quickly addressed. First, of course the Republican Party is damaged by having as one of its leaders a man who, half a century after Jim Crow’s long death began, makes statements that can be construed as meaning segregation was better than its demise.
Second, the Democrats get more out of the scandal if Mr. Lott stays on; every time he gets up to speak, he solidifies their base. Though it is true, as Rush Limbaugh has pointed out, that the Democrats can hardly get a higher percentage of the black vote, and their continued fixation on interest group politics keeps them playing the politics of yesterday.
Third, Mr. Bush hit Mr. Lott hard, saying “any suggestion that a segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive.” And then, after pausing to allow sustained applause, he went onto say, “Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country.” Why did Mr. Bush do that? Because he wants to separate himself and his party from Mr. Lott and his mouth. Normally Republicans rally around when they think one of their own is being unfairly smeared. Mr. Bush was saying Mr. Lott isn’t being unfairly smeared. This is big—presidents don’t publicly knock their party’s congressional leaders—and suggests the White House is pondering the GOP’s deep Senate bench, and how Mitch McConnell, Bill Frist or anyone but John McCain might be an improvement.
And finally, the New York Times isn’t flooding the zone—yet—because they are familiar with the old wisdom that one should never interfere with one’s enemy while he is destroying himself.
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It is hard to believe that Trent Lott meant to suggest that segregation was OK. It’s hard to believe any modern American would think that. But he left his remarks open to that interpretation. Why would a politician leave his remarks open to such a reading? Maybe it was an unthinking mistake, which would be unfortunate in its own way. But maybe it was the kind of thinking mistake politicians sometimes make.
A politician will stand and address a crowd and suggest something without quite saying it. He’ll leave some words out of a sentence, as if by accident, or as if he’s being casual because he’s surrounded by close friends. Or he won’t be completely specific. He’ll fade out with an ellipsis instead of completing a sentence, which leaves different members of an audience able to think that they’re on his true wavelength and infer his real meaning. Different politicians at different times use this form for different reasons.
Way back in the 1950s and ‘70s and even ‘80s some Southern politicians of Mr. Lott’s generation—in both parties—employed the “thinking mistake” to talk about race. So when Mr. Lott the other day emphatically but nonspecifically declared that if Strom Thurmond had been elected president, “we wouldn’t have a lot of the problems we’ve had,” a lot of people, including me, wondered if he were not making a thinking mistake.
If he was, how creepy. (A childish word and insufficient, but not a bad beginning.) To whom did Mr. Lott think he was communicating? Did he think the Capitol Hill staffers and friends who attended Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday party were racists who pined for the old days of separate but equal? Why would he think that? In the press accounts I read, Mr. Lott’s statements about what a grand old fellow Strom is were cheered, understandably. It was his birthday and he’s done some good things, such as being strong on the national defense throughout his career. But when Mr. Lott made the reference to a hypothetical Thurmond presidency, an uncomfortable silence swept the room. That was understandable too. Because when Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 he ran explicitly as a segregationist who would attempt to stop the civil rights revolution. He never, ever should have been elected president of the United States. It is truly weird for a person who lives in our world, in the modern world, to say otherwise.
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Sometimes I think we should get back to some basic truths when we talk about race and civil rights. Instead we talk past each other.
A lot of liberals harp on the subject of race, and they do it in a way that gives more attention to hatred for racists than love for equality. They can’t make or buy enough movies with names like “Ghosts of Mississippi,” which illustrate how terrible white people are, were and probably will be again if we don’t pass more laws. (White Southerners are and historically have been particularly demonized by liberals.)
The liberals’ sin is a mindless race obsession that keeps them from seeing clearly. But conservatives have a sin too. A lot of them become deaf when the subject is race. All their lives they’ve heard the long 40-year rap about how wicked America is, how hateful, and along the way they just stopped listening. Which left them unable to hear nuance, and slow, if you will, to hear the music of a great movement.
All this is part of the kabuki that happens when you take a great moral movement like civil rights and turn it, as it is inevitably turned, into a political movement. Sides get hardened and sides get stupid. It’s a little like the debate the past few years about obscene art. In that particular kabuki liberals get off on their faux courage, making believe it takes guts to create a painting of the Madonna smeared with feces. In the world we live in that takes no courage, and they know it. If they had guts they’d do a beautiful painting of the Madonna and accept the price: marginalization and dismissal by the art establishment. At the same time, conservatives in these battles get off on faux outrage. They stand up, shake their fists and say they’re outraged that someone would desecrate the Madonna. And some are. But some in their hearts know it’s all nonsense that means nothing, and what they really feel is delight that the left has once again done something ugly and stupid, and in public.
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But apart from posturing there’s a real story in where we are and where we have been in terms of civil rights in America.
There was an old American institution whereby people were judged by, and the facts of their lives were arranged around, what race they were born into. “If you’re white you’re right, if you’re black step back.” It lasted for hundreds of years. Its most vicious expression was slavery, and its less vicious forms continued for roughly a hundred years after slavery was ended, by war.
We’re talking “separate but equal”; we’re talking about the embarrassment and shame of a bad school for local black kids and a better school for local white kids. We’re talking about what nationally syndicated columnist Thomas Sowell referred to this week when he remembered being a soldier in the ‘50s. He lived in New York but was stationed down South. The bus he took to his base stopped at a gas station near Winston-Salem, N.C. He saw the bathroom marked for “Whites Only.” He walked around looking for the “Blacks Only” bathroom but he couldn’t find it. So he used the Whites Only men’s room. As it happens no one said anything, but he wondered why a man wearing the uniform of his country should have to go through something like that. It made him wonder what he was fighting for.
He was fighting for a nation that had a conscience to which an appeal could be made. And in spite of his forced march in pursuit of the Blacks Only bathroom, in spite of a thousand other humiliations he probably experienced and never speaks of, he became one of the great 20th-century appreciators of and defenders of this great nation and its freedoms.
It is very painful, our racial past. We made blacks and whites and all other colors equal in this country at great cost. A lot of feelings got hurt; a lot of people got hurt; a lot of people died. To pick only one of the millions of examples: Harold Ickes, the political operative who worked for Bill Clinton and now works for Hillary Clinton. I can’t imagine agreeing on too many political issues with Mr. Ickes, but back in the ‘60s he helped organize the Freedom Riders to desegregate the South. In Louisiana he got into a fight with some local bad guys. He was beaten so badly that he lost a kidney. He’s still walking around with only one kidney. He’s just a middle-aged white lawyer who’d pass you by on the street in a shirt and a tie, but in this respect, in terms of what he did 40 years ago, he is a hero. There were a lot of heroes in those days. It was all wrenching, but in the end we did the right thing.
And we’re proud of it, and should be. It’s cause for joy. And if you don’t know that, well, then let me play the ellipsis game . . .
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If you think of where we are now, in 2002, with so much more equality and working together and living next door to each other and sending our kids to the same schools and Boy Scout meetings, if you don’t understand that . . .
And if you don’t get it that the only nations that will succeed in the future will be those nations whose citizens enjoy the maximum amount of personal and political and intellectual freedom, and that it’s good we’ve spent so much of the past half century trying to ensure the expansion of those freedoms . . .
And if you look at who protects us in our armed services, including all these young black kids who could be embittered, who could choose to believe that they don’t have a chance, who could be using the past as an excuse not to try for a future, and who instead are putting their lives on the line to protect white and black and yellow and red America . . .
If you are a political figure who hasn’t integrated all this into your brain and your heart . . .
Then maybe you should just . . .
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And now let me translate. I’m saying Mr. Lott should step aside.