Massa Lott and the Senate plantation

When results from the polls in Missouri and Minnesota in last month’s elections gave Republicans control of the Senate once again, a Republican consultant I know threw up his hands in disgust and said “Christ, this means we’ll have Trent Lott as the leader again.”

Privately, a lot of other Republicans said the same thing but the party of the elephant got so wrapped up in celebrating their victories on election night they forgot what a problem Lott was for the party the last time they ran things in the Senate.

That failure to remember slapped them right in the face at a 100th birthday party for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond, one of the last of the old guard whose ideas should have left the Senate decades ago.

“I want to say this about my state,” Lott said in praising Thurmond. “When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

Thurmond ran for President in 1948 as a “Dixiecrat,” campaigning against civil rights.

“I want to tell you, ladies and gentleman, “ he said during that campaign, “that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”

Lott’s comments set off the expected firestorm of criticism from black leaders, Democrats and even some Republicans. Harold Doley, a black Republican who has served in the White House for five GOP presidents, said Lott should resign as Senate Majority Leader.

“I am meeting with other African American Republicans who are trying to build the party … we are going to ask Republican senators to vote for an alternative to [Lott],” Doley said in an interview with CNS News.

At first, Lott tried to stonewall the issue, then relented to pressure and issued a lame apology late Monday:

“A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past,” Lott said. “Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.”

The few who supported Lott in this debacle said Thurmond was simply reflecting the views of his state at the time and pointed to another Senator with a big racist skeleton in the woodpile – West Virginia’s Robert Byrd, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

“This was a lighthearted celebration of the 100th birthday of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond,” Lott said in his written apology. “My comments were not an endorsement of his positions of over 50 years ago, but of the man and his life.”

Yeah, right. Lott’s comments were not in praise of Thurmond’s long years in the Senate but of his presidential run in 1948, a run where the then South Carolina governor campaigned primarily on anti-integration issues and captured 39 electoral votes, including Lott’s home state of Mississippi.

Thurmond did not suddenly become a supporter of civil rights after he lost his run for President. When he entered the Senate in 1954, he quickly became the chamber’s leading opponent of civil rights, opposing the Supreme Court’s landmark ruling on integration and leading filibusters against equal rights for all Americans.

Later, Thurmond would moderate his racist stance publicly, hiring black staff members and voting for black judges, but those who knew Thurmond best say he has never accepted blacks as an equal.

“Strom came into the Senate a racist and he is leaving as one,” says South Carolina Republican Andy Chamberlin. “I’ve worked in his campaigns. He still believes blacks are an inferior race and will always believe that.”

During Thurmond’s last campaign for the Senate, Chamberlin says he often heard the Senator tell racist jokes when he was alone with his cronies.

“It was ‘nigger’ this and ‘nigger’ that. But that wasn’t the Strom the public saw. He was, and still is, a damn good politician.”

And some who know Trent Lott say his praise of Thurmond may not have been a slip of the tongue. The Mississippi Republican, they say, may still share some of Thurmond’s racist bias.

Shirley Wharburton, a former Senate staffer, says Lott is well known among Republican insiders as a man who enjoys racial slurs.

“I’ve heard him make disparaging remarks about black athletes and talk about how they are taking over professional sports,” she said. “Strom Thurmond is not the only Senator who uses the ‘n-word’ when he’s talking to other white Senators.”

Carl Ashton, another former Senate staffer, agrees.

“We may have women and blacks in Congress, but the power structure is still a white-boy network.,” says Ashton, who is white. “Deep down, those white boys still don’t like the colored folk.”