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In the Crossfire

Lott under fire for comments

Sharpton: "Mr. Lott said it and he said it again. He ought to pay for what he said. He should step aside."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- There is growing nervousness in Republican circles about the prospect of Mississippi Republican Sen. Trent Lott returning to his position of Senate majority leader after his remarks last week praising South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist run for president in 1948.

On Tuesday, Lott called his comments a poor choice of words, but they continue to spark debate. Is Lott's apology too little, too late?

The Rev. Al Sharpton of the National Action Network and former Congressman Bill McCollum, a Republican from Florida, joined "Crossfire" hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to discuss race, Republicans and Lott's mouth.

CARLSON: Rev. Al Sharpton, thanks for joining us. I admit that these remarks that Senator Lott made were weird and confusing and potentially repugnant to the extent that they imply he endorses segregation. But the fact is he says he doesn't endorse segregation. So isn't that the key issue? The remarks make him sound like a racist, but he says very clearly, "I'm not a racist and I repudiate the racist past of my state and of the senator I was talking about." So I don't understand what you're upset about.

SHARPTON: Well, I think that the fact is that he didn't just make an off-color remark. People are trying to act like he just said something out of line. To say that he wished the country had elected a segregationist ticket ... and then sit at the head of the Republican Party -- the majority party in the Senate that will review U.S. attorneys being confirmed -- is a frightening occurrence for those of us that had parents that in 1948 couldn't even vote and had to sit in the back of the bus.

This is not just an off-color remark. We're talking about somebody in power ...

CARLSON: But wait a second. He has said, "That is not what I said. That's not what I meant to say. That's not what I believe." Do you not believe him? Keep in mind, he said this in front of television cameras. It's not like he was caught secretly plotting here.

SHARPTON: Tucker, he can't say he didn't say it. You have the tape that shows that he said it. You also have the tape that shows that he said it before. You can go to any local penitentiary, and any crook will say, "I didn't mean it, I'm sorry." But you still pay for what you do.

McCollum: "I do not for one minute believe that Lott should go, nor do I believe that he is a racist, nor do I believe that we should be characterizing his remarks as racist. But we should be criticizing him for making them."

Mr. Lott said it, and he said it again. He ought to pay for what he said. He should step aside. No one is saying that if the people of Mississippi want to elect him to the Senate that they don't have the right to do that. But to be the head of the party in the Senate, given the sensitivity of that position, if the Republican Party wants to sincerely reach out to people as they claim they have, and as you almost nightly claim they want to, they certainly have an opportunity here by saying, for the interest of the country and the party, Mr. Lott should step aside since he either has very segregationist views or he at least has a repeated problem of being misunderstood when he endorses segregationists.

BEGALA: Bill McCollum, I'd like to play the tape and let you see for yourself and the audience see for themselves, rather than me characterize Senator Lott's words. This is what Trent Lott said last week.

Video tape begins:

LOTT: 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 all these years, either.

BEGALA: Now, first, I don't think that leaves very much ambiguity. And second, you don't think America would have been better if Strom Thurmond had defeated Harry Truman do you?

MCCOLLUM: No, I don't, Paul. I think it's a huge political gaffe. I think there's no question it's inexcusable that Trent Lott said those words. But I don't think anybody who actually knows Senator Lott and has known him over the years, whether Republican or Democrat, black, white, Hispanic, whatever, would ever believe that Trent Lott is, A, a racist, or, B, that he really meant it in the sense that it would go back to segregation period. I just have absolutely no doubt in my mind about that.

And I truly hope that it doesn't cause him to be forced out of the leadership, which I think he's doing a very good job with otherwise. We need, as a nation on race, to be spending time with bipartisan efforts -- that I'm sure the Rev. Sharpton would agree with -- early childhood education, opportunities for black males who are in prison in far too large of numbers to have job training and opportunity. [These are] things that we can come to bond on.

BEGALA: I think you make a good point that people ought not try to judge Senator Lott's heart. We don't know what's in his heart. I have no idea if he's a racist or not. I want to believe you. I don't know him. I believe you when you say he's not.

MCCOLLUM: Well, I do know him, and I know he's not.

BEGALA: I take that. But we can judge his words, and they were racist, because he repeated them 20 years ago. This is what he said 20 years ago, reported in The Washington Post today. Thurmond declared -- this is at a rally for President Reagan -- "we want the federal government to keep their filthy hands off the rights of the states." For many supporters and opponents of civil rights, the phrase "states' rights" stood for the right of states to reject federal civil rights legislation. After Thurmond spoke, Lott told the group, 'You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."

Now it seems to me like this is actually what he really believes. That we would be better had Truman lost to a segregationist and segregation policies had been followed.

MCCOLLUM: Well, that's what I meant about a political gaffe, because it gives an opening for Democrats and for those who want to think the worst, to take advantage of it and to talk about it. And I can understand and respect the fears of African Americans, who do certainly feel and remember the days when things were different.

And I believe that a lot of progress has been made. And I can't for one minute condone going back in any way. But I think, on the other hand, that this is being blown out of proportion. This was being done at the birthday celebration of a 100-year-old United States senator, who has himself converted to being very pro civil rights in modern times, who is revered by Democrats and Republicans alike with high integrity in modern times. And we're hearkening back to 1948 because Trent Lott made a mistake in what he said.

But, nonetheless, I do not for one minute believe that Lott should go, nor do I believe that he is a racist, nor do I believe that we should be characterizing his remarks as racist. But we should be criticizing him for making them.

CARLSON: Now, Reverend Sharpton, it troubles me, as I'm sure it troubles you, that this has become a partisan issue. And let me give you an example of what I mean. Former President Bill Clinton, throughout his eight years in office, repeatedly made reference to his mentor, personally and politically, and that's J. William Fulbright, a longtime senator from Arkansas who was, of course, a segregationist. Who signed the southern manifesto in 1956 attacking Brown versus Board of Education, the Supreme Court decision that allowed black children go to school with white children.

I didn't hear Democrats raise a fuss when President Clinton said "this segregationist is my hero, my mentor." Why?

SHARPTON: I think, first of all, you can't make one the other. No one in America doubts I would disagree with President Clinton if I felt he was wrong. But I didn't hear President Clinton say that I wish that Fulbright and the signers of the southern manifesto had won the presidency of the United States, and that's why we have problems now: because they didn't.

I agree with Mr. McCollum. We've made progress since then. The one that seems to doubt that we've made progress is Trent Lott, because he said we wouldn't be having all of these problems had we had this segregationist in '48.

So that is very frightening to people who are now wondering, what are we going to do about all of these black males in jails, Bill? And what are we going to do about health care and education? Exactly what you said we ought to be worried about, it makes us worry even more when someone that feels that all of these are problems that could have been solved if we had just stayed in the back of the bus and made a segregationist the president.

MCCOLLUM: Well, Al, I think the key to this, though, is despite the words and the appearance that are obviously negative and shouldn't be out there, I don't for one minute believe that Trent Lott thinks that it would have been great to have had this man at the time in 1948 with a segregationist view be president. What he said in his apology, I think, is genuinely sincere.

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