- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 14, 2002

Several regular readers have e-mailed requests for me to please, please write something about what a boneheaded statement Senate Republican leader Trent Lott made during his tribute to Sen. Strom Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, Dec. 5.
I am honored that some people, in their quest for an alternative to the babble-on gasbags of conservative talk-radio and cable TV, would turn to a cut-up like me to be their hatchet man.
Still, liberals should be reluctant in this case to pile on. As the old adage goes, you should not get in the way of your adversaries while they are busily destroying themselves.
Besides, you don't have to look far to see the crackerjack job Mr. Lott's fellow conservatives have done in taking him to the woodshed without any outside help.
"Lott surely owes an apology," scolded the Wall Street Journal's editorial page.
"He should remember it's the party of Lincoln," moaned William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, referring to Mr. Lott's role as Republican leader in the Senate.
"Lott did himself and the Republican Party serious damage and the damage is only growing," wrote the National Review's David Frum.
By contrast, good liberals, presumably full of compassion, should show a little of it for Mr. Lott.
He probably couldn't help himself. Like so many other basically decent men who have gotten themselves into deep you-know-what, he is a product of his environment.
Mr. Lott provoked a firestorm of criticism for suggesting during a 100th birthday party and retirement celebration for Mr. Thurmond that the United States would have been better off if then-segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond had won his third-party presidential bid in 1948.
"I want to say this about my state," Mississippian Mr. Lott said. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
When I heard those remarks while listening to the celebration over C-Span radio, I almost drove off the road. No, you didn't, I said to myself. No, you didn't really say that.
But, he did. Within a couple of days, he was taking it back. But, the damage was done and probably will keep on being done. One can easily imagine Mr. Lott's sound bite in Democratic ads in 2004. Right next to it, they can run some choice 1948 Thurmond quote, like, "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
Right into the 1960s, Mr. Thurmond fiercely opposed legislation to fight lynching, poll taxes and racial segregation. As an African-American who remembers "white" and "colored" signs and being sent back to the colored people's end of the bus, I do not think of Old Strom's America as the good old days.
But, once he saw the tide of history had changed despite his best efforts, Old Strom turned on a dime to become New Strom. Like Alabama Gov. George Wallace, he became a role model for segregationist pols who no longer could afford to ignore black votes. He hired black staffers. He supported black judicial nominees. He passed the pork from Washington around to black South Carolinians, for a change, not just the white ones.
South Carolina's black voters rewarded him with 22 percent of their vote in 2000, twice what they gave George W. Bush. We're a patient people. We even respond to outreach from Mr. Thurmond in his new, improved version.
That leads us to a very uncomfortable question about Mr. Lott: How could the man have been so brain-fried that he endorsed the Old Strom, who is denounced even by the New Strom?
From what I know of Mr. Lott, it is easy for me to imagine how a white Mississippian of his generation would have been led astray. We Americans of African descent, among others, know very well how much damage white supremacy can cause even to those who have been its beneficiaries.
Mr. Lott probably had heard so many glowing tributes to Thurmond that the charming old skirt-chaser no longer struck the younger senator as terribly controversial anymore, even in Strom's earlier unreconstructed version.
Mr. Lott already has shown remarkable talents for selective memory. He was a cheerleader at the University of Mississippi when hundreds were injured and two people died in student riots against the admission of the school's first black student, James Meredith.
Yet, Mr. Lott was conspicuously absent at such events as last fall's reunion of Mr. Meredith, university officials and some of the troops President Kennedy sent in. He apparently doesn't like to dwell on such historical matters, at least not in public.
History caught up with Mr. Lott at the Thurmond party. He forgot how much pain remains from those historical wounds. Or maybe he hasn't spent enough time among those of us who have felt it.

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