by | Dec 15, 2002 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

At the recent 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond, Sen. Trent Lott, the soon-to-be majority leader, made some pretty insulting remarks.

He said he was “proud” his state, Mississippi, had voted for Thurmond for president in 1948, even though Thurmond called for keeping whites and blacks separate in “schools, swimming pools or churches.”

Lott crowed that if America had elected Strom, “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years.”

(Which “problems” was he referring to? Too many blacks in the swimming pools?)

But the strange thing about Lott’s comments wasn’t that he made them. He used nearly identical words 22 years earlier, at a campaign rally. He said, “You know, if we had elected (Thurmond) . . . we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.”

Wow. I can’t remember my address from 22 years ago. If someone manages to be that consistent in his words, chances are he means them.

Still, the strange thing about Lott’s words was the reaction that followed. And it says much about the current state of this country.

The political posturing begins

One of the first reactions was an outcry from Democrats: “Lott must step down as majority leader!”

Why? As we just noted, Lott made the same statements in 1980, and he became majority leader anyhow.

Lott fought for tax-exempt status for Bob Jones University, which prohibited interracial dating until 2000. Why didn’t that disqualify him from a leadership role?

Lott had a long association with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a white supremacist group. Lott told them 10 years ago, You “stand for the right principles and the right philosophy.” Why didn’t that block his way in the Senate?

Why? Because politicians are politicians. They’d beat a shark to blood. And last week, Democrats, reeling from the midterm elections, saw a sudden chance to take down a powerful opponent. They jumped on it.

Then there were the far right-wingers and their reaction to Lott. This was really a hoot. Their approach — sadly practiced by radio and TV hosts who spout the same position — was not to admit the mistake, but to immediately point to similar mistakes by the other side.

“What about Robert Byrd? What about Jesse Jackson?”

This is so childish, it barely merits response. What about them? They made stupid statements, too. Does that somehow forgive what Lott said?

I even heard one conservative host say Democrats should be ashamed because
“the Democratic party is the party of segregation.”

Another cynical trick. Find some historical fact, then yank it into the present as a defense shield. Yes, Thurmond was originally a Democrat. But 54 years ago, he broke from his party because it moved too far toward integration. And the 1964 Civil Rights Act was under a Democratic administration. And on and on. . . .

The president weighs in

The president’s reaction was interesting. At first, he didn’t seem all that bothered. Then a few days later — and perhaps Karl Rove, his political svengali, had a word with him — he came out guns blazing, decrying Lott’s words, saying segregation was a blotch on our history.

If he left it there, it might have been noble. But he made sure to mention that “the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American.”

And so it became political.

And here is where it stands: Lott is apologizing. Democrats are digging for more dirt. Republicans are trying to make sure the president seems strong on civil rights, while not losing a Senate leader who can appease the “good ol’ boy” voting faction. The media jumps all over it because a fight is always good for ratings.

And in the middle of all this noise, here is the only question that matters: Do blacks, Latinos, Asians and other minorities really feel that anyone is looking out for their interests in this, or just covering their own behinds?

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. “The Mitch Albom Show” is 3-6 weekdays on WJR-AM (760).


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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