West Virginia Democrat Sen. Robert Byrd, whose past includes a stint as a Ku Klux Klan member, has remained silent over claims that presumed incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott used racially tinged language at a birthday celebration for a retiring colleague.
Critics have attempted to draw connections between the two men, but so far Byrd has refused to address Lott’s comments, the Charleston Daily Mail reported yesterday.
Lott made his comments at the 100th birthday celebration for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., Dec. 5. Thurmond ran for president on the breakaway Dixiecrat ticket on a segregationist platform in 1948.
Lott pointed out that his home state of Mississippi voted for Thurmond, adding: “If the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over the years, either.”
Blacks and whites alike have criticized those comments as racist in nature, though Lott – who has apologized at least three times for them – said he was referring to Thurmond’s ability to lead and has never supported his segregationist views.
Thurmond, over the years, also moderated his views, becoming one of the first lawmakers to hire black staffers and to support – eventually – the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
But Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said successful calls for the Senate to censure Lott would be met with calls to do the same to Byrd for comments he made nearly two years ago on a television news program.
During a taped interview in March 2001, Byrd said, “My old mom told me, ‘Robert, you can’t go to heaven if you hate anybody.’ We practice that. There are white niggers. I’ve seen a lot of white niggers in my time; I’m going to use that word.”
Byrd’s office eventually issued an apology, read over the air on Fox News Channel, but his use of a racially charged word has not equaled the criticism of Lott’s statement – a phenomenon some conservatives have attempted to point out.
“Unlike Lott, Byrd used overtly racist language, but got away with it,” syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote Monday.
“Some of the people making the biggest accusations have a lot to answer for themselves,” said Colorado Republican Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell, the only minority GOP member in the Senate.
“The Democrats are awful quiet about Sen. Byrd’s past,” he said. “At a certain point, he was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, but they’re very quiet about that.”
Byrd also has apologized for his KKK involvement.
“Being involved with the KKK was the most egregious mistake I have ever made,” he told the Daily Mail in 1999.
National polls indicate that most Americans want Lott to resign his leadership role. ABC News reports that “a bare majority” of 51 percent want Lott to step down as Republican leader.
In a separate survey conducted by pollster Scott Rasmussen, just 20 percent of Americans think Lott should remain Senate leader, while 47 percent think GOP senators should select a new leader.
One Republican, Sen. Don Nickles of Oklahoma, has already called for elections to oust Lott.
Also, the New York Times reported yesterday that Republicans with close ties to the Bush administration say Lott had “no chance” of remaining majority leader and that the White House wanted him out.