He was an ancient among the boys of the Greatest Generation. Thirty-nine years old, a sitting judge at the time of Pearl Harbor, he resigned from the bench and volunteered for the 82nd Airborne, the bravest of the brave.
On D-Day, he crash-landed in a glider in France, hours before the Higgins boats hit the beach, and helped liberate Ste. Mere-Eglise. Days later, he was photographed driving a military vehicle that had lately been the property of the Third Reich. Decorated for wounds and valor, he was with the Army unit that liberated Buchenwald.
He was Lt. Col. J. Strom Thurmond. As governor of South Carolina in 1948, he was the nominee of the States Rights Party, the Dixiecrats who bolted Truman’s Democratic party over civil rights. “Strom,” as America would come to know him, carried only four states.
Elected to the Senate as a Democrat, he became the nation’s most famous segregationist. For 23 hours, he filibustered the 1957 Civil Rights Act and stood with Barry Goldwater to vote “no” on the Civil Rights Act of 1964, bolted the party again and was crucial in leading the South into the Nixon camp at the Miami convention.
But as segregation died in Dixie, Strom adjusted. He courted black voters, hired black staffers, urged the nomination of black judges.
Last week, the grand old man was feted at a 100th birthday party at which the new majority leader, Trent Lott of Mississippi, declared: “I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. 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 these years, either.”
The words were said in gracious tribute. But the malicious saw opportunity. Tom Edsall of the Washington Post dug up 54-year-old Thurmond quotes (“All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches”), then phoned around to elicit the “outrage” he had sought to incite. As ever, the left and a few neoconservatives were delighted to contribute.
“Oh, God,” wailed William Kristol, whose old man, Irving, has not yet apologized for having been a Trotskyite two decades after Lenin and Trotsky began the extermination of Russian Christians.
David Frum, cashiered White House speechwriter, Jonah Goldberg of National Review and Andrew Sullivan piled on, parading their moral credentials by kicking Lott when he was down.
Al Gore, whose father voted with Strom to kill the Civil Rights Act of 1964, called Lott’s tribute a “racist statement” and said he must resign. “It is not a small thing for one of the half-dozen most prominent political leaders in America to say that our problems are caused by integration and that we should have a segregationist candidate. … That is divisive, and it is divisive along racial lines.”
No, Al, it is you, with this malicious twisting of what Lott said and meant, who are mining the rich vein of racist politics. For keeping the races polarized and black folks believing Republicans want re-segregation, or worse, is how you “energize the base.” In 2000, Gore suggested at a black church that what Bush meant by strict construction of the Constitution was to go back to when “some people were considered three-fifths of a human being.”
Smelling blood, Jesse Jackson called for Lott’s ouster. Lott, he said, “is an unrepentant Confederate who cannot speak for all Americans.” But Trent Lott can surely speak for Mississippi. Who ever elected Rev. Jesse to speak for anybody?
“Lott’s statement is the kind of callous, calculated, hateful bigotry that has no place in the halls of Congress. His remarks are dangerously divisive,” said Kweisi Mfume of the NAACP, doing his best to deepen that division. Put Mfume’s comment alongside Lott’s and decide for yourself which manifests “hateful bigotry.”
When Democratic leader Tom Daschle suggested that Lott meant no harm, Black Caucus Rep. Maxine Waters landed on him with both feet. A scorched Daschle hurriedly saw the light. Lott’s words, he said, “were offensive to those who believe in freedom and equality.”
Trying to stem the tide of venom coming his way, Lott offered an apology: “A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded politics of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.”
But the bleating of sheep only excites the gathering wolves, and the clamor grows for a full grovel, or resignation. What we are witnessing is the lynching of a good man who made a bad choice of words in a birthday tribute to an old man whose sins are no more scarlet than those of the rest of us. It stinks to heaven, but it is what passes for morality in Washington.