Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott says the moment was "lighthearted," but his remarks were leaden. Go to CSPAN's website, pull up the video stream of the Strom Thurmond 100th birthday celebration on Dec. 5, fast forward to the 32nd minute, and see for yourself. When Sen. Lott made what he now calls "a poor choice" of words, audience members seemed to recognize that he said something terribly wrong, and that in doing so he had damaged the Republican Party and his own effectiveness.
Sen. Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on a platform with a big segregationist plank. He won 39 electoral votes, including those of Sen. Lott's Mississippi, which Mr. Lott says remains "proud" of its vote, for "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years." Later, Sen. Lott posted an apology on his website to fight "the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."
"Discarded"? Sure, but concerning segregation, why not "sinful" or at least "wrong"? Citizen Lott is entitled to freedom of jest, but as majority leader his tongue is not his own. The GOP future is tied to President Bush's platform of compassionate conservatism and racial/ethnic inclusion. Bush Republicans were making slow progress, and Trent Lott in a few seconds made their task more difficult.
Furthermore, the Republican victory in November gave the GOP only 51 of the 100 senators. Will a damaged Trent Lott be able to hold together GOP support for the president's agenda when the going gets tough? Tom Daschle accepted Sen. Lott's apology, knowing that it is easier to face a weak adversary than a strong one. In Washington, the easiest way for a conservative to recover press respect after a blunder is to help pass liberal legislation. Conservatives should not have to pay for Mr. Lott's loose lips.
Bottom line: This story will not go away until Sen. Lott pays some significant price. Here's a suggestion. Look not to Mississippi in 1948 but to Louisiana late in 1998. Louisiana congressman Bob Livingston, a critic of Bill Clinton and about to become speaker of the House, was exposed as an adulterer. He took to the House floor and said, "To my colleagues, my friends and most especially my wife and family, I have hurt you all deeply and I beg your forgiveness." He then said that he could not "be the kind of leader that I would like to be under current circumstances. So I must set the example that I hope President Clinton will follow. I will not stand for speaker of the House."
Mr. Livingston by those words rose from dishonor to honor. Comparing adultery and a remark viewed as pro-segregationist is not the point here. The issue is effectiveness. A family-values party with an adulterous House speaker is compromised. A compassionate conservative party with a Senate leader who provides ammo for attacks on "racist Republicans" is compromised. For the good of the GOP, Mr. Lott should resign his leadership post.