Should Sen. Lott step down?
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A number of organizations including the Family Research Council and the Congressional Black Caucus are reacting with shock to controversial comments made last week by Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi.
In comments Thursday at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration, Lott praised Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid as a segregationist candidate and noted that his home state was one of four Thurmond carried in his 1948 campaign.
"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 all these years either," Lott said.
Lott issued an apology Tuesday, calling his comments a poor choice of words. Despite his apology, the NAACP is calling for Lott to quit his leadership post. Should he?
The Rev. Jesse Jackson, head of the Rainbow Coalition, and Rep. Mike Pence, a Republican from Indiana and the House deputy majority whip, stepped into the "Crossfire" with hosts Robert Novak and Paul Begala to debate the issue.
NOVAK: I want to show you how a Democrat, who I often disagree with but I think is a decent man, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle reacted to Senator Lott's apologies.
DASCHLE: Senator Lott, in my conversation with him this morning, explained that that wasn't how he meant them to be interpreted. I accept that. There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently. And I'm sure this is one of those cases for him as well.
NOVAK: Could it be, Reverend, that you want to play the race card and Tom Daschle doesn't?
JACKSON: No. It is that kind of weakness in a guy like Tom Daschle, where he draws no litmus test line for very offensive racism that goes into racist policy. Democrats must have some sense of integrity on this question of racism and gender bias. And I would think there should be a bipartisan rejection of one whose history and pattern and policy is so overtly insidiously racist.
NOVAK: We'll go back to this history later, but go ahead, Paul.
BEGALA: First, in defense of Tom Daschle, today he issued a statement saying that what Lott had said was wrong and they were offensive to people who believe in freedom and equality. It was smacking Lott back the way that he deserves to be. But first, let me congratulate you, Congressman Pence, on your leadership role in the House Republican majority.
PENCE: Thank you, Paul.
BEGALA: Let me play you the tape of what Trent Lott actually said. These are the controversial comments.
LOTT: It's 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 all these years either.
BEGALA: As a leader of the Republican Party, do you embrace or repudiate those comments?
PENCE: I, as Trent Lott did in the last 24 hours, I repudiate them. And the fact is that Trent Lott is a leader in Mississippi and in America whose commitment to civil justice is very clear. Twenty- five percent of African-Americans in Mississippi vote for this man and support this man. He has a 75 percent approval rating in his own state, even among many minorities.
I think Reverend Jackson and other leaders in this country would recognize that, while there are differences on policies, Trent Lott is not a racist. Trent Lott is not a man who endorses the concept of segregation. He is a man who misspoke here. It's grievous, I know. He personally is saddened about it, Paul, and has done everything to take it back.
JACKSON: ... He didn't stand for public accommodations. He didn't stand for the right to vote. He, in fact, has this association with the White Citizens Council. The fact is that Trent Lott did take Reagan to Philadelphia, Mississippi. It's known for only one thing, really, it's where Emmett Till was killed. And so these signals can no longer be ignored.
PENCE: Well -- and I think there are signals and there's a way to read that.
NOVAK: That was 20 years ago, Jesse. Twenty years ago.
PENCE: We can also look at a 30-year career in the Congress, Reverend Jackson, and recognize that this is a man, who despite the associations that you referred to, has been there consistently for minorities, for African-Americans in the state of Mississippi.
JACKSON: What Mississippi in 1940? This is the state where Emmett Till was killed, the state where we saw lynchings.
NOVAK: He wasn't even born then.
JACKSON: The state, which in 1940 blacks were denied the right to vote. We must not continuously tread lightly on something as destructive as racism in our country. And I think people like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice and the Anti-Defamation League and all people on the bipartisan, goodwill basis should say no to this kind of leadership. And it must be rejected.
PENCE: And I have and I will, but it's important to remember Trent Lott was 7 years old in 1948.
NOVAK: I think somebody has to say a good word for Trent Lott.
BEGALA: He's said lots of them. I want to set the record straight.
NOVAK: We've just been attacking the hell out of him. And, Reverend Jackson, when James Meredith was admitted to the University of Mississippi -- and this is on the public record -- one of the student leaders at the university, who tried to prevent the violence, was a fellow named Trent Lott. He kept his fraternity out of the race riot. He got a national award from his fraternity.
Why do you ignore that record that he had when he was just a young boy?
JACKSON: If you ignore his pattern of racist word and behavior and associations and anti-equality, anti-labor ...
NOVAK: How do you respond to what I just said?
JACKSON: I think it begs a question.
NOVAK: What do you mean begs a question? He fought against violence and racism?
JACKSON: So now you say that Trent Lott led a civil rights demonstration? Where were you? ...
BEGALA: Let me read to you from the public record.
PENCE: If I can -- it's so important. A man, "open mouth insert foot." This happens to every one of us that are in public life, just as Tom Daschle said.
I just met Reverend Jackson for the first time tonight. He has as men of his stature make comments that other people have suggested things about his character that were false.
I don't believe Jesse Jackson is anti-Semitic, as some attributed because of a comment, and Trent Lott is not racist.