- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 17, 2002

The White House yesterday repeated its sharp criticism of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, calling his praise of Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign "repugnant," and declined to defend him against a challenge to his leadership.
Some Republicans began to grumble that the administration's harsh criticism of Mr. Lott, after first offering only mild criticism and assurances of support, had prolonged the controversy and emboldened critics on both sides of the aisle.
A source close to the White House rebutted claims that the president had betrayed Mr. Lott by calling his remarks at Mr. Thurmond's birthday party "offensive" and "wrong" in a speech Thursday.
"I don't think this is throwing somebody to the wolves," said the source, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. "Look, there's always people who have their opinions, especially on presidents they're Monday-morning quarterbacks."
White House officials say the president's scolding of Mr. Lott was necessary because he had inflamed racial tensions with a remark that his critics first among them the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton interpreted as an endorsement of segregation. Democrats and newspaper and television reporters asked him to repudiate Mr. Lott's remarks.
Several Republican senators who had publicly excused Mr. Lott's remark at Mr. Thurmond's 100th birthday party say they feel "blindsided" now by the president's belated and blunt attack on Mr. Lott.
One Republican aide on Capitol Hill said Mr. Bush "cut the feet out from under" these senators by remaining silent for a full week after Mr. Lott's comments, and then to go on the attack.
Party strategists note that Republicans are less likely than Democrats to protect one of their own who is caught up by controversy.
"We do circle the wagons, but we tend to point the guns in," said Republican strategist Rich Galen. "There's a difference in approach because there is a double standard."
Mr. Galen pointed out that reporters declined to press Sen. Robert C. Byrd, West Virginia Democrat, after he twice used a familiar racial slur to describe blacks in a Fox News interview last year. Mr. Byrd, revered by fellow Democrats as the "conscience of the Senate," was a member of the Ku Klux Klan until he repudiated it six decades ago.
Reporters closely questioned Mr. Lott after he praised the retiring Mr. Thurmond, South Carolina Republican, at the party celebrating his 100th birthday Dec. 5. Mr. Thurmond ran for president in 1948 as a States Rights Democrat on a platform propounding segregation, states' rights, smaller government and lower taxes. The emphasis was on segregation.
"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him," Mr. Lott said at the party. "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."
The White House at first discounted the significance of the remark.
"Many people have spoken on the floor of the United States Senate, Democrats and Republicans alike, in praise of Senator Thurmond," Mr. Fleischer told reporters Dec. 6. "This is a day in 2002 to celebrate Senator Thurmond's 100th birthday with pride."
Four days later, the White House gave Mr. Lott a strong endorsement as point man for the president's agenda in the Senate. "The president has confidence in him as Republican leader, unquestionably," Mr. Fleischer said.
The next day, when reporters pointed out that Mr. Lott had made a similar remark while campaigning with Mr. Thurmond for Ronald Reagan decades earlier, the White House rose to his defense.
"The remarks that were made in 1980, according to Senator Lott's staff, were made in an entirely different about an entirely different subject," Mr. Fleischer said.
But 24 hours later, after both the New York Times and The Washington Post urged that Republicans replace Mr. Lott as their leader, the administration's position changed dramatically. "Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," the president told a largely black audience in Philadelphia. "Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals. And the founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American."
The broadside energized Democrats and several conservative commentators, who called for Mr. Lott's resignation. Last weekend, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who has aspired to Mr. Lott's job, suggested that Mr. Lott as Senate leader could imperil the president's agenda.
By yesterday, the White House had come a long way from its insistence that the president supports Mr. Lott "unquestionably."
"The president does not believe that Trent Lott needs to resign," Mr. Fleischer allowed. "He found the remarks to be offensive and repugnant, and he spoke out clearly about them. He thought that was very important to do."
But the White House steadfastly refused to take sides if there is a Republican challenge to Mr. Lott's leadership. The Senate Republican caucus plans to meet Jan. 6 to discuss the Lott controversy.
Yesterday, Mr. Fleischer was asked repeatedly whether the continuing controversy would imperil Mr. Lott's ability to shepherd the president's agenda through the Senate. The spokesman declined to answer the question, but suggested the president's agenda would help blacks.
"The president would like particularly to see legislation passed to help lower-income Americans, people who have been left behind, from every walk of life, so they have a better shot at the economic pie of America," Mr. Fleischer said.
Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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