As early as January 6, Trent Lott will have a chance to convince his Capitol Hill colleagues that his segregationist ways are a thing of the distant past and that today he stands reborn, an honorable man of the New South.
Lott will be facing the Republican Conference, where at least four senators are contending for his job as Senate majority leader, chief among them Bill Frist of Tennessee, a pol who followed Bush’s bidding in the past election and amounts to the Bush version of a compassionate conservative, and the conservative business hero Don Nickles of Oklahoma, whose voting record the NAACP says is just as bad as Lott’s. Others looking to make hay on Lott’s recent praise for Strom Thurmond’s racist presidential campaign are Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania.
Poor, poor Trent Lott. Not only are his peers looking to take him out, but he most likely will see himself depicted as a pariah when members of his very own chamber debate whether to censure him. The Democrats, in particular, can be expected to make the most of the GOP’s miseries.
On first glance, merely surviving—let alone extending his reign—might seem a daunting test, but Lott has two things going for him. First, if he were to drop out of Congress, he’d give Mississippi’s Democratic governor, Ronnie Musgrove, the opportunity to appoint a Democrat, thereby wresting back control of the Senate from the GOP.
Second, jettisoning Lott might be read as a betrayal of young Southern white men, who have been essential to Republican control of the South since Richard Nixon first crafted the Southern strategy. For many of them, flying the rebel flag, venerating Confederate prez Jefferson Davis, and grousing about affirmative action are defining issues.
What Lott and the rest of the Republican core understand is that casting the white guy as victim is the new way to frame racism in America. Lott and his favorite uncle, Arnie Watson, long have been tight with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a spruced-up version of the old White Citizens Council, known in Mississippi as the “uptown” version of the Klan. Its overt racism more or less painted over, the Council of Conservative Citizens concentrated on such issues as busing and immigration, symbols of the eroding status of white people in society. After LBJ pushed the Voting Rights Act through, the council suffered mightily, then briefly found refuge in George Wallace’s Klan-favored 1968 presidential campaign. Council members have dwelled in a sort of triangle of land running from HQ in St. Louis over to Memphis, down to Jackson and back. They sent their kids to the private white academies set up by the council to avoid integrated public schools.
While Lott insists his segregation days are long gone, the segs don’t think so. They consider him their man in Washington. When, in 1994, Lott became Senate majority whip, the Council Bulletin crowed, “Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi is the new Senate majority whip, the important #2 post. He defeated Senator Alan Simpson, Wyoming, who . . . was the expected victor on a 27-26 vote. One vote made it possible. A tip of the hat and ‘job well done’ to all those CCC members who contacted their Republican senators and urged them to support Lott. It made a difference!” Five years later Lott and the council were cheek by jowl. “The Senate majority leader has spoken to the organization a number of times,” wrote The Washington Post‘s Tom Edsall on April 9, 1999, and “at local and national gatherings has entertained its leaders in his Senate office and has twice appointed the head of the Mississippi branch, Bill Lord, to serve as his Senate campaign chairman in Carroll County.”
When Lott started his slow-motion sort-of apology for kissing up to Thurmond, Richard Barrett, one of majority leader’s supporters, lost it on Nationalist.org. In an open letter to Trent Lott, he wrote, “You owe your loyalty to Mississippi, not the NAACP. The reason that you have been elected is because you have been a segregationist, pitted against integrationists in your various elections.”
Barrett demanded a response from Lott for backstabbing his supporters. “An apology would be in order to the memory of William L. Colmer, once Dean of the Congress, who placed you in public life, and who was as staunch a segregationist as ever could be,” Barrett demanded. “I still have the photo of you, me and Congressman Colmer, when we all were together in Pascagoula, here on my wall and would like to say that I have been proud of it.”
So there stands Lott, caught now between the racists he has cozied up to and the Republicans who insist he make a show of disavowing them. With his praise for the long-gone days of the Dixiecrats, the majority leader can’t help Bush much. As the president prepares for war, someone might remind him that the Dixiecrats split from the Democratic Party when candidate Harry Truman tried to integrate the armed services. The idea of sending troops into Iraq, blacks carrying one kind of canteen and whites another, might give Bush pause.
So might the highlights of Lott’s public career:
Additional reporting: Rebecca Winsor and Josh Saltzman