In the world of college fraternities, there is a long-standing custom during what is called Rush Week, when new members are being sought, to hide away those fraternity brothers whose personalities are so visibly unpleasant as to scare off potential members. The ugly brother is told to hide in the frat house basement or stay off the premises altogether when rushees are being shown around.
Republican Sen. Trent Lott’s predicament reminded me of that old fraternity custom. Outside of Mississippi, he’s going to be invited to go down to a symbolic basement in the 2004 presidential campaign. No matter how many more apology press conferences he schedules nor how many black Americans he hires for his senatorial office between now and 2004, Mr. Lott is going to be an invisible presence in Republican politics, especially at the next Republican presidential convention.
Is an incumbent president, trying to overcome the parental jinx that defeated his father’s presidential re-election bid in 1992, going to allow himself to be photographed with Mr. Lott at the nominating convention? Is President Bush going to allow the senator to sit on the convention platform itself, let alone to address the convention, an honor normally due to a Senate majority leader? Would Mr. Bush campaign for re-election in Mississippi in 2004 with Mr. Lott at his side speaking on his behalf? Name a Republican senator up for re-election in 2004 who would invite Mr. Lott to his state for a fund-raising speech? Is the Democratic presidential candidate going to raise the Trent Lott question in the presidential debate with Mr. Bush? You betcha. The mere thought of going into the 2004 presidential election race with Mr. Lott, a visible figure in Republican politics, should be enough to persuade party leaders to ask Mr. Lott to step down. [Senate Republicans will meet January 6 to settle the fate of Sen. Lott ]
Any president seeking a second term bid is at risk. He should not have to carry with him unnecessary baggage that would endanger his campaign and the success of his legislative program. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, running for a fourth term against a popular New York governor, Thomas E. Dewey, dropped his vice president, Henry A. Wallace, a potential embarrassment in the 1944 presidential campaign, in favor of Harry Truman. With his criticism of Mr. Lott, Mr. Bush has, about as directly as he could, invited the senator to resign as the future Senate majority leader. No matter how many times Mr. Lott says that he is not a segregationist, that he didn’t mean what he said, that from now on he will hire many more blacks for his senatorial office, or even if he wangles an invitation to address the Black Caucus whatever every day that he remains leader of a Republican Senate he remains, unjustly perhaps, a symbol of a shameful era in American history. And his legislative record would confirm that.
But there is another aspect to Mr. Lott’s troubles. The late Clark Clifford, the Democratic Party’s gray eminence, once described President Ronald Reagan, in what must be one of the most monumental misjudgments in history, as an “amiable dunce.” But such a phrase might apply to Mr. Lott. Any 21st century senator who hasn’t the savvy to realize that there are certain things an aspiring politician can no longer say in America, particularly one in a leadership position, raises serious questions about his brain-power and leadership talents. It raises questions about other gaffes Mr. Lott, in his amiable fashion, might pull off in a future speech.
Sometime in 1803, Napoleon executed an innocent young royalist, the Duc d’Enghien. Horrified by the execution, a French noble declaimed: “It’s worse than a crime, it is a blunder” (Pire qu’un crime, c’est un faute).
What Mr. Lott said as a good ol’ boy at South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond’s going-away party was just that a blunder for which Mr. Bush will pay in 2004 unless Mr. Lott falls on his sword the sooner the better.