Lott apologizes anew for comments
GOP leader asks for forgiveness
PASCAGOULA, MISSISSIPPI (CNN) -- Fighting for his political life, Republican Senate leader Trent Lott went before the cameras Friday and offered a public mea culpa for comments that appeared to endorse segregation.
"I apologize for opening old wounds and hurting many Americans who feel so deeply in this area," Lott said in a news conference in his hometown. He asked people to "find it in their heart" to forgive him and vowed to work with black leaders to make amends. (Reaction to apology)
"Segregation is a stain on our nation's soul," Lott said. "There's no other way to describe it. It represents one of the lowest moments in our nation's history and we can never forget that."
Lott, 61, announced that he was in talks with Black Entertainment Television to deliver an hour-long speech next week about his "hopes and dreams" for people "regardless of their race."
Lott, who was greeted with hearty cheers from supporters at the start of his news conference, vowed not to step down from his leadership post, rejecting the suggestion by some that he is bigoted against minorities.
"I'm not about to resign for an accusation that I'm something I'm not," Lott, a 30-year veteran of the House and Senate, declared.
He talked about his own upbringing during the half-hour new conferences, describing himself as a sharecropper's son, who "along with the South" had learned from his mistakes.
"In the days and months to come, I will dedicate myself to undo the hurt I have caused and will do all that I can to contribute to a society where every American has an opportunity to succeed," Lott said.
Lott's extended apology came one day after a rare and stinging rebuke from President Bush who said that any suggestion that segregation is acceptable is "offensive and it is wrong."
Lott, the incoming majority leader, also faced pressure from fellow Republicans and conservatives who said he had opened the GOP to charges of racial bigotry with his praise last week of segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid.
The comment in question was delivered last week ago during a 100th birthday party for the retiring Thurmond -- a party that often resembled a roast of the South Carolina Republican, who later in his career rejected segregation and supported civil rights.
Lott noted that in Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign, whose centerpiece was opposition to integration, Mississippi was one of four states 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.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, Friday called the Lott comments "a salute to bigotry."
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)
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.
Friday, Lott said his choice of words was "totally unacceptable and insensitive," but he insisted he harbored no bigotry. He said he only meant to pay tribute to Thurmond's long political career during a "lighthearted affair." Lott noted that he had grown up in a segregated society.
"Not only have I seen the destruction by these immoral policies of the past, I have tried and will continue to do everything in my power to ensure that we never go back to that type of society again," Lott said.
The news conference marks Lott's fourth attempt to settle the controversy, which comes as Republicans are set to regain control of the Senate in January.
Lott issued two print statements earlier this week, seeking either to explain the comments or apologize for them, and, on Wednesday he gave a round of phone interviews -- but did not appear in person until Friday.
Before the news conference, Lott won a show of support Friday from Sen. Jim Jeffords, an independent from Vermont who bolted from the GOP last year.
While noting that he had political differences with Lott, Jeffords called him "a man of honor and good conscience."
Said Jeffords: "I don't know anyone in the public eye who has not made a mistake and said something in a manner that does not truly reflect their intentions."
But the Congressional Black Caucus released a statement Thursday calling for a "formal censure of Sen. Lott's racist remarks." And two Democratic senators have called on Lott to resign his leadership post.
Even before Lott's press conference Friday, several senators, mostly Republican, came to Lott's defense, saying his earlier apologies should have put the matter to rest.