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Bush calls Lott comments 'offensive'

GOP leader faces pressure for further explanation

President Bush delivered a rare -- and stinging -- rebuke of a fellow Republican when he criticized Trent Lott's recent comments.
President Bush delivered a rare -- and stinging -- rebuke of a fellow Republican when he criticized Trent Lott's recent comments.

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President Bush denounces Sen. Trent Lott's remarks. (December 12)
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Sen. Trent Lott again apologizes and disavows his remarks, CNN's Jonathan Karl reports (December 12)
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush on Thursday sharply rebuked incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott for comments that some have called racist, saying any suggestion that segregation was acceptable is "offensive and it is wrong."

Bush's comments, delivered to a mixed-race audience in Philadelphia, came one day after Lott, a Mississippi Republican, said he would not give up his leadership post, despite the furor over his remarks.

"Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," Bush said to loud applause. "He has apologized and rightly so. Every day that our nation was segregated was a day our nation was unfaithful to our founding ideals."

A spokesman for Lott said the senator agreed with the president that his comments were wrong and reiterated his regret at having said them. Lott later called the president and the two had what aides described as a positive conversation.

The president did not call for Lott to step down, but other conservatives say Lott must offer a fuller explanation of his comments, despite his apology.

"On their face, the recent comments of Sen. Trent Lott are offensive, repugnant and inimical to what the Republican Party stands for," said William Bennett, a noted conservative author and education secretary during the Reagan administration.

Bennett suggested that Lott's explanations about what he meant when he praised segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign have been inadequate.

"If Senator Lott can provide a satisfactory explanation for his statement, this entire episode should be forgotten," Bennett said in a statement released Thursday. "If he cannot, he needs to step down as the Senate majority leader."

The president's strong statement suggests that Lott has failed to quell the controversy over his comments, which some conservatives complain have opened the GOP to charges of racial bigotry. On Thursday, the Congressional Black Caucus -- comprised of black Democratic lawmakers -- released a statement calling for a "formal censure of Sen. Lott's racist remarks."

Two Democratic senators -- John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- have called on Lott to resign his leadership post, but there has been no such call from any GOP senator. Several, in fact, have risen to Lott's defense, saying his apology should put the matter to rest.

But Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, said Lott should have a "full-blown press conference" to address the controversy.

start quoteRecent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country.end quote
-- President Bush

"I have known Trent Lott for 20 years," McCain told CNN. "I don't believe he's racist. But he must proactively send a message to his colleagues in the Senate and the American people that he is absolutely opposed to any segregation in any form and racism in any form and discrimination in any form."

The comment in question was delivered one week ago during a 100th birthday party for the retiring Thurmond -- a party that often resembled a roast of the South Carolina Republican.

Lott noted that in Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, whose centerpiece was opposition to integration, Mississippi was one of four Thurmond carried.

"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 similar comment he made at a 1980 campaign rally for Ronald Reagan in 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.

Another past incident also may come back to haunt Lott. Time magazine has reported that Lott vigorously opposed desegregating his fraternity when he was a student at the University of Mississippi in the 1960s. (Full story)

Lott's comments have led two Democratic senators to call for him to give up his leadership post.
Lott's comments have led two Democratic senators to call for him to give up his leadership post.

Lott granted two phone interviews Wednesday during which he apologized repeatedly for the more recent comment, calling it "terrible." 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 in a call to one radio talk show, 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.

Kerry -- who is exploring a possible 2004 bid for the White House -- became the first senator to call on Lott to resign his leadership post with a statement Wednesday. Feingold did the same Thursday.

The Wall Street Journal and the Family Research Council, a conservative group, have also criticized Lott for his comments, saying he has hurt Republican efforts to reach out to minorities.

Lott said Wednesday night that 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.

Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, called Lott a "good leader" but suggested that Lott address civil rights groups to "speak out openly about" the controversy.

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