In addition to all the annoying sound and fury, the Trent Lott affair produced three important but painful political lessons for Republicans who hope for future victories for their party.
1. When it comes to political damage, the cover-up almost always proves more costly than the original crime.
This rule applied to the Watergate disaster, the Lewinsky catastrophe, and every other major act of public self-destruction – including the recent immolation of Sen. Lott. If Nixon and Clinton had quickly and completely admitted their wrongdoing, they would have suffered intense but fleeting embarrassment, while avoiding constitutional crises that paralyzed their presidencies. If Trent Lott had handled his own (non-criminal) crisis with even a minimal supply of candor and class, he also might have escaped permanent injury to his career.
Instead, he offered dodges, spin and outright lies. He couldn’t cover-up, exactly, since he made the fateful comments on national television. “When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it,” he emphatically declared. “And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years.”
The problem with these statements isn’t that they’re too muddled and confusing, it’s that they’re too clear. Lott’s first apology therefore satisfied no one. “A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past,” he said. If his comments represented merely “a poor choice of words,” what words could he have chosen to more effectively convey his meaning? It wasn’t his words, it was the sentiments behind them that enraged even sympathetic observers.
Two days later, Sen. Lott made a bad situation even worse. On a national radio broadcast, in response to the friendly and sympathetic questioning of Sean Hannity, he stated: “I’m sorry for my words. They were poorly chosen and insensitive and I regret the way it’s been interpreted. Actually, when I think back about Strom Thurmond over the years, what I have seen is a man that was for a strong national defense and economic development and balanced budgets and opportunity and that’s the kind of things that I really had in my mind.”
This is a transparent lie: Defense issues and balanced budgets played no role in Thurmond’s presidential campaign in 1948. The official platform of his breakaway Dixiecrat Party never even mentioned “economic development” or “national defense” in any of its nine planks and Thurmond expressed few disagreements with Truman on such issues. That platform did, however, affirm that “we stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race … We oppose the elimination of segregation, the repeal of miscegenation statutes …” Thurmond’s disagreement with the Democratic Party had nothing to do with “balanced budgets” and focused almost entirely on issues of race.
If Lott had directly and manfully corrected himself within 24 hours of his disastrous comments, Jesse Jackson may have continued his complaints but most Americans would have lost interest in the dispute. Imagine a press conference (not a soft-ball “interview”) in which Lott declared: “I’ve looked at the video of my own remarks and I’m just as appalled as anyone else. What I said was stupid and indefensible. Strom Thurmond has served his country honorably for the last 80 years, but he himself would acknowledge that his segregationist campaign for president wasn’t the proudest moment of his career. I was horribly wrong to say that Mississippians are proud of having supported this campaign, or to suggest that our country would have been better off under segregationist leadership. All Americans should be grateful that in 1948, the overwhelming majority of voters (97.6 percent of all of us, nationwide) rejected the principles of the Dixiecrat Party.” Why has Trent Lott found it impossible to speak to these issues with this sort of clarity?
2. “So’s Your Old Man” arguments demean political discourse and convince almost no one.
Some GOP apologists have made conspicuously pathetic attempts to excuse Sen. Lott’s stupidity by citing other embarrassing moments by Democratic politicians. It’s true that Sen. Robert Byrd served as a member of the Ku Klux Klan more than 60 years ago, but the issue with Trent Lott is what he said 10 days ago.
Meanwhile, Sean Hannity on his Fox News program reminded viewers: “We have back in October of this year, William Jefferson Clinton, in Arkansas saying wonderful things, what a remarkable man J. William Fulbright, former senator from Arkansas is, a known segregationist. He gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, a known segregationist, one of 19 senators who issued a statement entitled ‘The Southern Manifesto,’ condemning the ’54 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, defending segregation. Why hasn’t anyone condemned Bill Clinton for doing far worse than what Trent Lott has done here?”
The answer to that question is easy – because Clinton’s praise for his former mentor, Fulbright, never emphasized or even cited his segregationist record, but stressed his better known service as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. No one objected to Clinton honoring Fulbright, just as no one protested Lott’s praise of Strom Thurmond, the man. In fact, many Democratic senators offered their own fulsome tributes to their elderly colleague, and expressed overall respect for his long career. But only Trent Lott specifically endorsed Thurmond’s disgraceful third-party presidential adventure, and expressed the wish that a segregationist had captured the White House.
3. Republicans must repudiate their tendency to choose the most “deserving” leader instead of the most effective leader.
In 1996, Bob Dole declared “it’s my turn” and the GOP leadership went along with his presidential nomination – even though everyone knew he had little chance of electoral success. Many Republicans made the argument that Dole “deserved” the nomination because of his long service – just as they insisted that Newt Gingrich deserved the speakership, long after he had achieved a terribly negative public image, because of his past record of inspired leadership. If coaches ran football teams on similar principles, they’d give the ball to enfeebled 50-year-old quarterbacks simply because they had enjoyed lengthy NFL careers and may have reached the Super Bowl 20 years ago.
In the case of Trent Lott, there’s not even an impressive record of success to recommend him. His career in the national limelight has produced a long series of public embarrassments and in each election they faced with Lott as their majority leader, Republicans actually lost seats in the Senate.
Mr. Lott’s mishandling of his own boneheaded remarks shouldn’t end his public service, and he will almost certainly continue to represent Mississippi in the Senate. But only willful blindness to the political realities could support the conclusion that he now represents the most effective individual among 51 Republicans to lead his party in the U.S. Senate. More than a dozen of his colleagues could do a better job, while denying Democrats the high-profile target that Lott so obviously provides.