Lott: I'm not stepping down
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, under fire for comments that some critics have taken as an endorsement of segregation, said Wednesday he will not step down from his leadership post.
Democrats and some conservatives have questioned Lott's comments at last week's 100th birthday party for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, when he said the country "wouldn't have had all these problems" had Thurmond succeeded in his 1948 run for the presidency -- which included a segregationist platform.
"Look, you put your foot in your mouth, you're getting carried away at a ceremony honoring a guy like this, you go too far," Lott said in an interview aired Wednesday night on CNN's "Larry King Live."
"Those words were insensitive, and I shouldn't have said them," Lott said during the telephone interview. "I regret it and I apologize for it."
During last week's birthday party -- which often resembled a roast of Thurmond -- Lott noted that his home state was one of four Thurmond carried in his 1948 campaign, which strongly opposed integration.
"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.
That line initially drew little fire, but the criticism grew this week and intensified with a report of a comment he made at a campaign rally more than two decades ago.
In 1980 when he was a congressman, Lott spoke at a campaign rally for Ronald Reagan in Jackson, Mississippi. His comments followed a speech by Thurmond, who praised the platform that would soon put Reagan in the White House.
"You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today," Lott was quoted as saying of Thurmond in a November 3, 1980, article in The Clarion-Ledger, a Jackson newspaper.
But Lott said Wednesday, "I was 7 years old when Strom first ran for president. I don't really remember anything about the campaign."
In neither case, Lott insisted, did he mean to endorse Thurmond's since-discarded segregationist views. Instead, Lott said, he meant to praise Thurmond's stance on defense, law enforcement and economic development.
"This was a mistake of the head or of the mouth, not of the heart," he said of his comments, reprising a line first used in 1984 by civil rights activist Jesse Jackson, who was criticized at the time for describing New York City as "Hymietown," a comment many took as anti-Semitic. Jackson has blasted Lott for his recent comment.
Lott said no one in his party or in the Bush administration has said anything directly to him about the remarks.
He said the attitude he has heard is more like, " "Hey, what's going on here? He's apologized and he has said the things he needed to say and yet now it's being spoken about by Al Gore and by John Kerry."
Sen. John Kerry -- a Massachusetts Democrat who is exploring a possible 2004 bid for the White House -- called on Lott to resign his leadership post.
"I simply do not believe the country can today afford to have someone who has made these statements ... be the leader of the United States Senate," Kerry said in a statement released Wednesday afternoon.
Before Lott spoke Wednesday, his Democratic counterpart in the Senate called on him to provide a fuller explanation of his comments.
"The question Sen. Lott needs to answer is, if he did not mean to endorse segregation, what did he mean?" said Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota in his second statement on the matter in two days.
Lott did address the issue during his interview:
"We're way beyond those policies of the past, Larry. They were bad at the time; we've made huge progress since then. My state has more African-American elected officials than any other state," he said.
But Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee, accused Lott of having a "pattern of racist remarks" and urged Republicans to reconsider whether they want Lott to lead them in the Senate.
"The time has come for leaders of the Republican Party to speak out against Sen. Lott's remarks," McAuliffe said.
No Republican senator, however, has said Lott should give up his leadership post, and several lawmakers -- including Democratic Sen. Bob Graham of Florida -- strongly rejected the suggestion by some that Lott is a racist.
Still, Lott was criticized by some of his usual allies, who said he had opened the GOP to charges of racial bigotry.
Family Research Council President Ken Connor said Lott had done "considerable" damage to GOP efforts to woo black voters.
"Now we do not believe that Sen. Lott is a racist," Connor said in a Tuesday statement. "But such thoughtless remarks -- and the senator has an unfortunate history of such gaffes -- simply reinforce the suspicion that conservatives are closet racists and secret segregationists."
In an editorial Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal condemned the comments as well, saying Lott "played right into the hands of opponents who are eager to paint the Republican Party's southern ascendancy as nothing more than old-fashioned bigotry."
Lott told King he hoped he could be judged in the full context of his career, which he said has included support of historically black colleges and universities.
"I do have a long record of trying to involve African-Americans and supporting our historical black colleges and universities -- Jackson State University, Alcorn University -- making sure that we had an active intern program to bring African-Americans into the state," he said.