Nov
17
2006

Trent Lott's Redemption Song

Coverage of minority whip election ignores racist ties

Sen. Trent Lott's return to the ranks of the Senate Republican leadership has been broadly covered as a story of political redemption. In this scenario, the once-fallen Senate majority leader, having apologized and atoned for his sins—in this case, praising the racist 1948 presidential candidacy of the late Strom Thurmond—is restored to the body's top ranks with his election to the No. 2 Republican post of minority whip. But these redemption story reports have downplayed Lott's association with and praise for racists, while greatly exaggerating his atonement.

In his 2002 remarks, Lott said he was proud that his state, Mississippi, had supported Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign; he added, "If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." The two central planks in Thurmond's 1948 platform were segregation and opposition to a federal anti-lynching statute. "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the negro into our homes, our schools, our churches," Thurmond proclaimed at the time (Washington Post, 11/2/88).

Upon Lott's newfound "redemption," though, CNN (11/15/06) recalled the incident as a "blog-driven storm. Lott was accused of embracing Thurmond's past. He attempted to explain. He apologized, but it was too big and his Republican colleagues pushed him out of the leadership."

An Associated Press article (11/16/06), "Sweet redemption: Republicans return Lott to Senate leadership," passed lightly over Lott's loaded remarks: "At Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday bash, Lott had saluted the South Carolina senator with comments later interpreted as support for Southern segregationist policies."

A front-page New York Times report (11/16/06) employed a similar theme of redemption, calling Lott's story an "unlikely study in professional redemption" and describing him as "a man whose recent history is itself a testament to sudden falls, unlikely recoveries and the fickle hands of fortune in American politics"—as if Lott's troubles were simply a matter of bad luck.

Many other reports saw Lott's remarks as a judgment problem rather than a racism problem. A Times online report (11/15/06) called them "ill considered," while Washington Post columnist Dana Milbank (11/15/06) characterized them as "infelicitous," explaining that, in his battle back into the Senate leadership, Lott "was determined to demonstrate that he could control his mouth." Other reports called Lott's remarks a "gaffe" (Special Report With Brit Hume, 11/15/06), "racially impolitic" (Washington Post, 11/16/06), and "tasteless" (Los Angeles Times, 11/16/06).

Vocal enthusiasm for an openly racist campaign suggests a bigger problem than poor taste, certainly. But much of the coverage (e.g. New York Times, 11/16/06; Associated Press, 11/16/06) gave no inkling that Lott's record of racism and racist associations amounts to more than one isolated incident. As a member of the House of Representatives in 1978, Lott was behind a successful effort to re-instate the U.S. citizenship of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. In 1981, the year Lott became majority whip in the House, he prodded the Reagan administration to fight for tax exemptions for racist private schools like Bob Jones University. (The Supreme Court turned down the administration’s plea in an 8 to 1 decision.)

In 1982 and again in 1990, Lott voted against extending the Voting Rights Act. In 1983 he voted against a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., and in 1994 voted to de-fund the Martin Luther King holiday commission. In 1990 Lott voted against the continuation of the Civil Rights Act. In 2005, Lott scored 5 percent on the NAACP's civil rights legislative report card (NAACP.org, 1/06).

And no mainstream media outlet seems to have reported that Trent Lott has never even motioned toward apologizing for his long association with the Council of Conservative Citizens, or for the lies he told denying his links to the group.

In late 1998, when it was learned that the then-Senate majority leader had had a long-term association with the CCC, a racist group the Southern Poverty Law Center described (Intelligence Report, Winter/99) as "the reincarnation of the infamous White Citizens Councils of the 1950s and 1960s,” Lott responded to questions about his appearance at a CCC event by denying, through an aide, any detailed knowledge of the group, and said he only “vaguely remembered” giving a single speech to the group more than ten years earlier (Extra!, 3-4/99).

In fact, Lott hosted CCC leaders at his Senate office in 1997 and addressed its events at least three times in the 1990s. As a keynote speaker at a 1992 CCC convention, Lott heaped praise on its members: “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy.... Let's take it in the right direction and our children will be the beneficiaries!"

This earlier racism scandal was widely reported at the time (e.g. Washington Post 12/11/98; New York Times, 1/14/99; Los Angeles Times, 1/29/99), but in just a few short years has been swept down the media memory hole—neatly clearing the path for Lott's unreconstructed "redemption."