- The Washington Times - Monday, December 16, 2002

Just when Republicans were making modest political gains among black voters, Senate GOP leader Trent Lott's stupid remarks knocked his party back to Square One.
Mr. Lott made a deeper, personal apology last Wednesday and still another longer one on Friday for saying it would have been good for the country if segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948.
At a gala birthday party for the 100-year-old Mr. Thurmond earlier this month, Mr. Lott said that if the then-Dixiecrat candidate for president had been elected, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."
Most who heard Mr. Lott say those words believe he was just speaking in jest at a celebratory event where Mr. Thurmond received effusive accolades for his political longevity, and his decision to change with the times. Maybe to Mr. Lott's way of thinking, this was another bygone era buried in American history and was now fair game for lighthearted remarks.
But not for blacks and their children who lived through that period. The scars and wounds are still real. There is a strong belief among blacks that many whites still harbor the racist views of that era.
Congressional Black Caucus leaders condemned Mr. Lott's words and demanded he be censured if not forced to resign.
Mr. Lott thought he could end the controversy with a statement put out by a spokesman saying he regretted his words and that they did not reflect his views.
But the controversy only grew. Republicans rallied around Mr. Lott, saying he had made a blunder in his poor choice of words but that black leaders were trying to exploit the incident for political gain. The White House was forced to respond, and President Bush rebuked Mr. Lott for remarks that he said "do not reflect the spirit of our country."
Then another news story out of Mr. Lott's home state of Mississippi dug out a statement he made at a 1980 campaign rally, after Mr. Thurmond spoke, where he made an almost identical remark: "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." Mr. Lott said he was not talking about Mr. Thurmond's views on race but on national defense and balancing the budget.
That only increased the uproar and, sources say, pressure from his party and the White House to respond more forcefully. Mr. Lott went on two talk shows last Wednesday to say that his comments were "a mistake of the head and not of the heart. I apologize for the words, and I'm sorry that I used words that were insensitive.
"I do reject segregationist policies of the past," he said on CNN's "Larry King Live." "I don't accept those policies of the past at all."
Republican Sens. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Ted Stevens of Alaska defended Mr. Lott, calling black criticism an "overreaction" and saying it was "time to move on." So did Oklahoma Rep. J. C. Watts, the only black Republican in Congress.
But former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Jack Kemp, who has made reaching out to blacks and other minorities a major part of his career, harshly rebuked Mr. Lott's remarks as "inexplicable, indefensible and inexcusable."
Mr. Kemp, who has strong ties to black leaders, warned his party that if the soon-to-be Senate majority leader did not take steps to repair the damage his words had caused, his party would suffer a long-term setback.
While most of his party's leaders rallied around him, many wondered how the overly cautious Mr. Lott could have made such an incredible remark. What was he thinking when he uttered words that seemed like a full-blown endorsement of the segregationist Dixiecrat platform?
Mr. Lott's blunder came at a time when the black electorate was slowly but surely changing. Recent surveys by black voter groups showed younger blacks were increasingly registering as independents, not Democrats. And a small but noticeable number of blacks were registering Republican.
The elections revealed growing disenchantment with the Democratic agenda among black voters in Maryland, Florida and elsewhere. Mr. Bush has been making a concerted effort to reach out to blacks and polls show surprisingly strong support among them for school-choice proposals and Social Security personal savings accounts.
If Mr. Lott had any sense, he would have immediately gotten on the phone and personally called black leaders and each member of the Black Caucus to apologize. He should have asked to meet with them.
Mr. Lott plans to go before a black television audience in the coming days. But he needs to address their concerns, in a very personal, soul-searching way, about what he really thinks. And he needs to seek out other ways in the weeks to come to further repair the political damage his remarks may have caused his party.
Mr. Lott has needlessly embarrassed himself, his party and his president. I think he can repair the damage, but he needs to acknowledge that what he has done is not going to be easily forgotten by the black voters he has so deeply offended.

Donald Lambro, chief political correspondent for The Washington Times, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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