Rent by Trent

Trent Lott’s position in the Senate is deeply eroded, more than has been made public. His most vocal Senate defenders have one by one privately decided he must go. They want him to step down but have no reason at this point to think he will. They do not want the drama to continue until they meet to vote on his fate on Jan. 6. And some are fearful that Mr. Lott will squeak through that vote, which will have many unfortunate implications, for the party’s future and for his ability to lead. Even if he manages to cobble together 26 votes, his 51-member caucus will have been deeply divided.

Mr. Lott at this point seems to be on automatic pilot, doing what politicians do when they’re fighting for their lives: pressing for support automatically and almost unthinkingly, speaking to the media, making his case. He’s in shock. His shock is understandable. It would have been good if he had resigned this week. Maybe he will over the holidays. But it would be best for the Republican Party—and the country—if Republican senators were utterly brutal and moved to fire him before then. This would be a Christmas present to the country: Jim Crow’s long, gasping death is finally over. If they do not move before Jan. 6 they certainly must fire him as leader on that date. And when they do they should read a brief statement explaining what they did and why they did it. And then they should speak no more, and go back to work.

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Meanwhile, Bill Clinton brought his special brand of crinkly-eyed malice to the story Wednesday, telling CNN that the growing opposition to Mr. Lott within the GOP is “hypocritical” because, after all, Republicans are racists anyway. Or rather, “I think what they are really upset about is that he made public their strategy.” And “he just embarrassed them by saying in Washington what they do on the back roads every day.” This from the man who gave that old segregationist J. William Fulbright the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

You could almost see Mr. Clinton’s mind whirling as Jonathan Karl interviewed him. Hmm, I could be high-minded and speak thoughtfully during what amounts to a public crisis, or I can play gut-ball politics and slam the enemy. No contest. Way to go, Bill, and happy holidays from a grateful nation.

Others will refute Mr. Clinton’s charges. I’m going to do a Lott question-and-answer, because I sense the story is becoming confused, with good people trying to do and think the right thing and tearing their hair out over what is fair and integritous. (Integritous is a word made up by a kid I know. It means just what it sounds like, full of integrity. It is a great word, so I’m going to try to popularize it.)

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Q: Why should an unfortunate remark be enough to cost Mr. Lott his job?

A: Because it’s 2002. Because America began its modern civil rights movement 50 years ago, and at some point we as a people have to be able to declare, in truth and comfort, that this good movement has reached its maturity. The half-century mark would seem a good time. You know the movement has reached full maturity and won over a nation when none of that nation’s leaders feel free to speak, consciously or unconsciously, the language of racial antagonism. When one does, he should be replaced.

There are other reasons.

It is a mistake to underestimate the degree to which some black Americans fear they may find themselves at the mercy of the forces that used to keep them down. People internalize memories and absorb the vibes of history. Margaret Thatcher told me a few years ago that one of the things she’d become deeply aware of while in power is how fearful so many people feel in their daily lives, that insecurity itself is a great force in modern life. I was struck by this. I’d never heard a political figure speak so thoughtfully about the varieties of human experience, and I also thought she was right, and I was startled that it was Mrs. Thatcher saying it. She wasn’t famous for sensitivity.

But many people are fearful, deep down, that some old bad day will return. There are American Jews who fear pogroms will someday come to this country. You may think that surprising, but they have reason to feel as they do: The Holocaust took place in their lifetimes, or killed their family, or scarred the lives of their loved ones.

In the same way there are blacks in America who fear, deep down, that the whites of America do not accept them truly, will never accept them fully, would move against them if possible and, at the very least, often deride them behind their backs. Do you find that surprising? I don’t. I think it’s sad and human and understandable. It’s what happens when people have been enslaved.

One of the great patriotic emotions of our time, it seems to me, is to be eager that everyone in our country come to feel as secure and respected as everyone else. Part of that—just a small part but a meaningful one—means no speaking in racial code words by political, cultural or religious leaders. Period. Or anyone else if that’s possible.

I believe that Trent Lott spoke at the Thurmond birthday party in racial code words. And a man who does that should not, half a century into the modern movements for civil rights, be allowed to continue as the face of a major political party in politics.

Q: But come on—Democrat Robert Byrd went on Fox and actually said some people are “white niggers,” and he’s still in the Senate. Jesse Jackson called New York “Hymietown,” and they still call him a leader. Mike Wallace made fun of Mexicans and blacks and he’s still on “60 Minutes.” Mr. Lott’s getting a raw deal.

A: If you compare him with others maybe he is, but why compare him with others? Trent Lott is the majority leader of the Senate. That’s big. Jesse Jackson is a freelance fraud, he’s not a leader, he’s not a holder of high office in a great democracy. Bobby Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, who was once a member of the KKK (Tip O’Neill is said to have had a private nickname for him, “Sheets”), is not a leader either; he’s a weird throwback. And Mike Wallace doesn’t represent the United States; he represents Mike Wallace’s ambition.

Q: But Mr. Lott apologized. Isn’t that worth something?

A: Yes. A lot, actually.

Q: Don’t you think he’s really sorry for what he said?

A: Yes.

Q: Do you think he’s more sincere because he got caught?

A: Yes. We’re all more sincere when we get caught.

Q: Well, if he apologized and you think he’s sincere, isn’t that enough?

A: No. Look, to be human is to feel sympathy for the guy at the bottom of the pile-on. Mr. Lott is going through a special kind of torture, the torture of the modern media age, which entails humiliation in front of an entire nation. In front of the world. So I feel sympathy, and I’m not kidding. But he should step down as a congressional leader of a great party, recede deeper into the woodwork of the Senate, and accept the price we all pay one way or another, in public or in private, when we do something destructive.

Q: Is this story about other things, though? Isn’t some of it about Mr. Lott being an ineffective leader, so people are moving against him because they want a change of leadership anyway?

A: In some cases that’s probably true. People often have mixed motives. It’s hard to know someone else’s motives; it can be hard to fully know your own. But in general I don’t think this is about Mr. Lott’s flaws or virtues as a leader, I think it’s about America and race and what it is acceptable to say.

Q: But isn’t there a double standard here? Democrats get slapped on the wrist for using racial and religious epithets, but Republicans lose their jobs over it. It’s not fair.

A: Maybe it isn’t fair, but think of it this way: The history of the Republican Party on race is mixed. Yes, that’s true of the Democrats too, but Democrats are perceived today as sympathetic to the movements for freedom that have marked the past century, and Republicans are not. This has some implications. It means Republicans have to go out of our way to show that our hearts are in the right place. But there’s another thing that is even more important. If we are tougher on ourselves, maybe that’s good. Why shouldn’t we be tougher on ourselves?

If the Democrats all too often treat race as if it were a card to be played in a game, and if the Republicans in contrast attempt to struggle through the issue and be serious and go out of their way to expunge the last vestiges of the old racial ways, isn’t that something we should be proud of? History is watching. It will know what we did. What will history think if it sees a new seriousness on race from the Republican Party? I think it will say: Good. And I think that matters.

Q: But won’t this just hand another win to the Democrats?

A: That’s not the most important thing; that’s not a high consideration. To many Democrats, this is a just an inside-Washington political story; it’s all gut-ball politics, and by seeking political opportunity in the Republicans’ dilemma they’re revealing a stunning insensitivity to those Americans who felt hurt and angered by Mr. Lott’s comments.

There’s no reason Republicans should treat it as a game; there’s no reason the standards of conservatives should be as elastic as those of the left. Partisan Democrats have figured out that keeping Trent Lott as majority leader would be a major coup for them. Every time Mr. Lott stands to speak for his party he’ll have an invisible bubble over his head that says “Remembers Segregation Fondly.” Even better, Mr. Lott, in his Black Entertainment Television interview, more or less announced that to prove he’s not a racist he’ll support legislation that is at odds with conservative thinking, such as supporting affirmative action. As Andrew Sullivan said, this is the worst of two worlds in which Mr. Lott leaves the old racism to embrace the new racism.

Q: Why are you conservative pundit-writer-chatterer types so passionate about this?

A: Lots of reasons. One is that we’re tired of being embarrassed by people who aren’t sensitive to the reality of race in America. We’re tired of being humiliated by politicians who otherwise see many things as we do but who seem to have an inability to be constructive and understanding about race. We’re tired to being associated with hate mongering. We care about our country, and we think patriotism demands a constructive attitude in this big area.

Some of us have put our reputations in jeopardy by supporting programs like the school liberation movement because we want to help people who don’t have much and need a break. Or we’ve put ourselves in jeopardy by opposing racial preferences, or any number of other programs, for the very reason that we believe completely in our hearts and minds that all races are equal and no one should be judged by the color of his skin. And then some guy comes along and speaks the old code of yesteryear and seems to reinforce the idea that those who hold conservative positions are really, at heart, racist. We are indignant, and we have been for a long time.

In the Lott scandal our indignation reached critical mass. A lot of conservatives, many of them 50 and under, decided enough is enough, let’s end this, let a new party be born. And by the way, in the particular case of Trent Lott, it didn’t start yesterday. Stanley Crouch just surprised me by sending me a column he wrote almost four years ago for the New York Daily News. It was about a Lott appearance before the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white-supremacist group. I said it was springtime and it’s time to throw out the garbage, and Mr. Lott should go. Go to the archives of conservative journals and see what they’ve been writing and thinking for a long time about race. This is a good time to get real conservative thinking out there and known for what it is.

Q: What do you think Mr. Lott should do after he steps down, or is pushed out by Republican senators?

A: I think he should rewrite the first paragraph of his obituary every day of his life by speaking about the American dilemma as a Southern white man of the 20th century. He should begin his speeches with, “My name is Trent Lott, and I used to be majority leader of the Senate. Let me tell you how I lost my job.” Then he should speak with candor about what he knows and has seen of race in America. Q&A to follow. This could be a real contribution to our country.

After his huge scandal, John Profumo, England’s former secretary of state for war, did something like this. He devoted his life to doing good. And to anyone who was watching, he died a great man.