Lott: Tripped up by history
By Dan Goodgame and Karen Tumulty
Trent Lott has long tried to have it both ways in the battle over civil rights, speaking in a code that signaled his support for segregationist groups but in words so vague that he could later deny that they meant anything at all.
The Senator from Mississippi appeared as recently as the 1990s before a white-supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, telling its members that they stand for "the right principles and the right philosophy." When confronted over the remarks later, he denied any "firsthand" knowledge of the group's beliefs.
For years, the tactic worked for Lott, who used it mostly in small gatherings in the South, where he was able to curry favor without paying much of a price elsewhere. But last week the bill came due. As Lott acknowledged in an interview with TIME, "I've said things and done things on race-related issues that weren't intended to be hurtful but that I now realize were hurtful."
Lott's attitude and record on civil rights became a burning issue last week because of what he said at a 100th-birthday celebration for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond. Former majority leader Bob Dole had set the stage nicely with a tribute to the wizened, wheelchair-bound Thurmond, a South Carolinian born when "America had yet to honor the promise of equal opportunity for all our citizens." A fiery segregationist for most of his career, Thurmond eventually embraced the extension of the Voting Rights Act and the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and thus came to symbolize, Dole said, a country that "outgrew old prejudices."
Dole's graceful words made it all the more jolting when Lott, who is scheduled to resume his old job as majority leader when the Senate convenes next month, took the podium and declared, "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."
The room, jammed with well-wishers, a handful of reporters and one of those ever present C-SPAN cameras, went silent for a moment. And so did the rest of Washington, for a few days. But Lott had set off a time bomb. During the 1948 race Lott was referring to, Thurmond had broken with the Democratic Party over President Truman's expansion of civil rights for black Americans. Thurmond ran for President as the nominee of the States' Rights Party, also known as the Dixiecrats. Its platform was built almost entirely around a pledge to uphold "the segregation of the races and the integrity of each race." Thurmond won 39 electoral votes on his vow that "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
Lott's apparent nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow segregation was denounced as "fundamentally racist" by former Vice President Al Gore. In a terse written statement, Lott apologized to "anybody who was offended" by his "poor choice of words." But the Washington Post reported that Lott had used almost identical words in praise of Thurmond's segregationist campaign during comments in Mississippi in 1980. A slip of the lip suddenly looked like a pattern and opened a public exhumation of Lott's long record of votes and statements hostile to the civil rights movement.
Despite making four apologies by the end of the week, however, the incoming Senate leader had wounded not only himself but also his party's decade-long campaign to shed its reputation for thinly veiled race baiting. He soured the jubilant mood that has lifted Republicans since they recaptured control of the Senate in last month's elections--with Lott in control of its agenda.
The controversy comes at a time when many Republicans had begun to believe that in George W. Bush they had found an inclusive messenger who could help them attract minority votes. And the damage among some white voters could be even greater: Lott may have tainted his party among educated suburban professionals and managers who are sympathetic to the G.O.P. on economic issues but are repulsed by any hint of coded appeals to prejudice. Senator John Ensign, a Nevada Republican, says of Lott's misstep, "It will take a lot of work for us to negate it."
If Lott didn't see the storm coming, it was in part because it was so slow in building. The papers did not make note of his comments until days after he had made them. But the stillness was broken by the hum of Internet "bloggers" who were posting their outrage and compiling rap sheets of Lott's earlier comments. It took a few more days before Democrats denounced Lott and demanded a censure.
More worrisome, some conservative leaders who have never regarded Lott as an effective leader weighed in. Pundits like William Bennett called for Lott's ouster from the Republican leadership, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page declared he had "played right into the hands" of the left. Even Lott's hometown paper, whose publisher these days is an African-American woman, called for him to resign as Senate leader. Lott, however, was convinced that his written statements of regret were sufficient to put out the fire, and so he flew with his wife to the Florida Keys for a long-planned getaway.
The Washington Post story broke just as Lott was settling into a Key West vacation home (owned by his wife's sister and her husband, the famed trial lawyer Richard Scruggs) in which the principal connections to the outside world were a single phone line and a small television on the back porch. Back in Washington, the White House realized Lott was not going to be able to mop up his mess. President Bush, flying to Philadelphia for a speech, was agitated as he discussed Lott's comments and was determined to speak out against them. "This is going to be painful," he told aides on Air Force One. "But we have to do it. It's like lancing a boil."
Lott, sources say, was stunned by the force of the President's rebuke. Appearing before a largely African-American audience in Philadelphia, Bush declared, "Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country." He added, in a stern and emphatic tone, that the Senate leader's words on the segregated past were "offensive" and "wrong." Bush said he accepted Lott's apology and had his spokesman tell reporters that he was not calling for Lott to give up his leadership post. But the President's aides whispered to reporters that he never much liked Lott, even before this incident.
Lott by then had figured he was about to go over a cliff, his cell phone his only lifeline as he dialed up more than 50 of his colleagues to apologize and explain. His Senate second in command, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was pleading with Republican Senators to defend their leader but found few takers. Word went around that at least one Republican Senator was threatening to publicly demand Lott's resignation. The only people who seemed to see any benefit in his remaining as one of the most visible figures of the Republican Party were the Democrats, which is why their leader, Tom Daschle, was privately counseling patience. Lott's friends, meanwhile, said that the Senator, a sunny figure who can often be heard humming and whistling country tunes, sounded as depressed as they have ever heard him.
The stories kept getting worse, as reporters and Lott critics dug up evidence of his long record of resistance to the civil rights movement. TIME reported on its website that in college Lott had led the fight to keep his fraternity all white, not just in Mississippi but in chapters across the U.S. In Congress he had voted against nearly every contentious civil rights measure, including some that most in his party had supported. He had filed a friend-of-the-court brief to argue for maintaining the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, despite its discriminatory policies and its ban on interracial dating. (In his defense, his office offered a list of largely symbolic accomplishments on behalf of minorities: a congressional medal for Rosa Parks, who began the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott; a task force to recognize the slaves who helped build the Capitol; a day honoring minority World War II veterans.)
Most of the case against Lott was not fresh, but it was new to a national audience that knew him, if at all, only as the pleasant-looking fellow with the hurricane-proof hair who was always drawling about some legislative gambit on the Sunday TV talk shows. For a man who has occupied leadership positions in the House and Senate for 23 years, Lott has little to show for it by way of political vision or legislative authorship. In that sense, the Thurmond flap was a defining moment for Lott--a chance to prove that he had grown and changed and was fit to be a national leader.
He flew from Key West to his home in the shipbuilding and shrimping town of Pascagoula on Mississippi's Gulf Coast and opened a news conference by saying his comments at the Thurmond party were "totally unacceptable and insensitive, and I apologize for that." He added, "I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that we now know were wrong and immoral, and I repudiate them. Let me be clear: segregation and racism are immoral." Lott asked for "forbearance and forgiveness as I continue to learn from my own mistakes." But once he got beyond his script and the questions started, Lott was talking about the new Pascagoula River bridge for which he had won federal funding, the Nissan auto plant he had helped attract to Canton and all the defense contracts he had brought home, sounding more like the Fifth District Congressman he once was than the leader of the U.S. Senate.
That's a big problem for him and for his party. When Lott utters the word visionary or intellectual, he usually does so through a curled lip. He is admired not as an author of important legislation but rather as an inside player--someone who can forge just the right compromise to get someone else's bill passed. That's one reason Lott's extensive public statements and voting record on civil rights matters did not get much national attention until last week. It also helps explain why he was so slow to address the controversy over his comments on Thurmond. Except for brief flare-ups when his name was associated with fringe groups, the people who really mattered to him -- his Mississippi supporters and Republicans in the Senate and White House -- had seldom complained about such comments in the past.
"The most important thing to understand about Trent Lott is that he never left Mississippi," says a Republican politician who has worked with him for decades. "He did not grow in the sense of trying to understand the country." Lott rose in Congress by cultivating personal relationships and making his moves at the right time. Says the friend: "He's never outgrown who he is and where he comes from." But that's not entirely fair -- not fair, that is, to Mississippi.
There are still Confederate souvenirs in many curio shops, but most of the state has moved into the 21st century with an entrepreneurial zeal. You can see blacks and whites eating together, shopping together and studying together to a greater extent than in many northern cities and suburbs. And as Lott pointed out at his press conference, Mississippi boasts more black elected officials--897 as of July--than any other state.
A day after making his hometown apology last week, Lott told TIME in an interview that he has been transformed along with his state. "I have changed. People in Mississippi have changed. You grow up in one kind of society and know a certain kind of people and their views, and then as you mature, you meet other kinds of people." He pointed to his press conference as evidence. "Think about the statements I made there. I stood in Pascagoula, Mississippi, and repudiated racism of all kinds and apologized for things I've said that hurt African Americans. If Mississippi hadn't changed, I couldn't have said those things. Can you imagine a Mississippi politician of 30 years ago or 20 years ago doing that? They couldn't do that."
Most of those who know him best, foes as well as friends, say they don't consider Lott a racist in the sense of someone who hates blacks and plots to hold them down. His brother-in-law Scruggs, a longtime civil rights proponent and major financial contributor to Democratic politicians, says, "Trent and I disagree about almost everything in term of politics. But he's a fair-minded man who I've known well 32 years, and I've never seen anything remotely suggesting racial animus in him." Rather, friends say, Lott has believed -- at least until last week -- that government has no business forcing one group of people to associate with another, nor should it compensate anyone for past injustices.
He is convinced, as he emphasized at his press conference last week, that he is living proof of the opportunity America offers to those of humble origins. His close friend, Senator John Breaux, a Louisiana Democrat, says, "Trent thinks that if he could make it, anybody can."
To understand that, it helps to look at the rock bottom he came from. Chester Trent Lott was born in October 1941 in the north-central Mississippi hill town of Grenada, 246 miles from Pascagoula -- and a world away, economically and socially. He was, from the start, considered a "miracle" boy. He was born six years after his parents began trying to conceive a child. They were never able to have another. Lott's first name, like his father's, came from the county in South Carolina where the Lotts first settled after emigrating from England, making their way by the early 1800s to Mississippi. Iona Lott, 89, recalls that she chose her son's middle name from a radio show that she enjoyed, The Romance of Helen Trent.
At his press conference last week, Lott emphasized his roots as the son of a sharecropper, one who dropped out of school in the ninth grade and farmed cotton on another man's land in return for a share of the harvest. But the land was hilly and so poor that, as locals put it, you couldn't grow anything on it but old. The Lott family didn't have an indoor toilet or bathtub until Trent was 10, but they had their priorities straight, as far as he was concerned; he had a pony and a .22 rifle, which he used mainly to shoot snakes. And he was taught to share. "People used to say that an only child would be spoiled and selfish," Iona recalls, "and I was determined that he wouldn't be that way."
Trent eagerly absorbed an interest in politics from his grandfathers. His mother's father, a large man with a rich bass singing voice, served as a justice of the peace, sported a handlebar mustache and carried a .38 pistol in a shoulder holster that Lott prizes. His paternal grandfather was a county supervisor. Young Trent loved sitting under the edge of the porch listening to the men talking about campaign tactics and patronage. (Decades later, when he moved from the House leadership to become a junior Senator, Lott said, "I felt like I'd been sent back under the porch again.")
By the time Trent was ready to start the seventh grade, his family had moved to Pascagoula, where his father got a job as a pipe fitter in the shipyard. Trent was too small for football, so he played tuba in the band. He had such a space between his front teeth that he was nicknamed "Gap." But he was smart and friendly, discreetly helping classmates with homework and lavishing attention on kids like himself who weren't athletic or attractive. "And you know what?" he once told Time. "Turns out we were the majority."
In high school, Lott was elected student-body president, as well as most popular, most likely to succeed, most polite and neatest. Only his close friends knew of the trouble he faced at home. His parents quarreled constantly--about the money his father spent on bourbon and cigarettes, the nights away from home and his mother's suspicions that Chester Sr. was seeing other women. Young Trent often had to act as a mediator. He recalls, "It made me grow up at an early age." Friends say it also gave him traits common among the children of alcoholics: a desire to avoid touchy issues and disagreements and to try to make everyone happy.
Iona Lott taught school, and the kids who sat in her classes and visited her home say they can see in Trent her cheerful toughness and her obsessive tidiness. Lott's wife, the former Tricia Thompson, was the oldest of six children and says she "didn't keep house the way Trent was used to." Even in Washington, she once said with a shrug, he vacuums the house "because he doesn't like the way I do it." Lott also re-irons his shirts to get rid of the little wrinkles they pick up on the way back from the cleaners.
The Pascagoula in which Trent Lott grew up was settled by immigrants from France, Spain, Italy, Lebanon and Yugoslavia. But in Lott's youth, as now, blacks numbered only about 18% of the area's population, and whites didn't feel as threatened as they did in the black-majority counties of the Mississippi Delta. While most neighborhoods were segregated, the largest black precinct was smack in the middle of town, and the races mixed easily on the streets and in factories, where jobs were usually available to all. Lott recalls that "race just wasn't that big an issue for me growing up."
That situation changed dramatically when Lott attended the University of Mississippi. He arrived in 1959 and had become the leader of the interfraternity council by September 1962, when armed federal marshals arrived to install James Meredith as the university's first black student. Lott was not among the rioters who resisted the marshals or among the smaller group of students who favored integration. His main concern, he said, was keeping his fraternity brothers away from the violence. In a 1997 interview with Time, Lott said, "Yes, you could say I favored segregation then. I don't now."
Gerald Blessey, who was among the few integrationists at Ole Miss in 1962, declined to discuss Lott's latest troubles but told Time in 1997 that he considered Lott more of a political opportunist than a George Wallace -- style hater. "You could say that Trent was representing the views of his constituents" in supporting segregation. Blessey lost to Lott in a congressional race in 1976 and said that while he and Lott have been "often on opposite sides over the years," he believed that on the issue of race, "Trent has a good heart."
After college, Lott returned to Pascagoula and practiced law. But within a year, he was offered a top staff job in Washington by the district's veteran Congressman, William Colmer, who chaired the powerful Rules Committee. Colmer was a staunch segregationist, in the mold of other legendary Southern Democrats of the time, including Senators Richard Russell of Georgia and William Fulbright of Arkansas. When Colmer announced his retirement in 1972, Lott declared his candidacy for the seat -- as a Republican -- and eventually won his mentor's endorsement.
Once in Congress, Lott vowed to "fight against the ever increasing efforts of the so-called liberals to concentrate more power in the government in Washington." But as Lott entrenched himself in Congress, his votes helped expand federal spending, borrowing and police powers. He supported expanded outlays for the military, farm subsidies, rural public-works projects, Social Security and Medicare. The main federal activities he opposed were taxes, programs aimed at helping the poor and civil rights laws.
His resistance to civil rights was low-key but consistent. He supported a constitutional amendment in 1979 to prohibit school busing, but it failed. In 1981 Lott persuaded President Reagan to support tax exemptions for racially segregated private schools, a shift in federal policy.
Lott also filed his brief with the Supreme Court, defending the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, arguing that "racial discrimination does not always violate public policy." The court sided against Lott and the school. In 1982 Lott voted against extension of the Voting Rights Act, but it passed into law. In 1983, he voted against the designation of a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr.--another racial-reconciliation measure favored by Thurmond.
At his press conference last Friday, Lott emphasized that he objected to the cost of the holiday -- about $325 million, by his reckoning -- and added that he had worked to place a bust of King in the U.S. Capitol. Lott's open sentimentality about the Confederacy has continued unabated. In 1998 he spoke at the dedication of a library at Confederate leader Jefferson Davis' last home, on the beachfront in Biloxi, Miss., saying "Sometimes I feel closer to Jefferson Davis than any other man in America."
What, if anything, has changed between 1962, when Lott described himself as a segregationist, and the day last week when he repudiated segregation and all forms of racism? Lott told Time that "it wasn't any one moment or epiphany" but rather many experiences, especially as he has got to know better the poorest parts of his home state.
"We've lived in this cocoon in Pascagoula," he said. "Everybody had a job. The schools were good. But it's different in the Delta." There, he says, "I've seen that a lot of people don't have the opportunity we had." Lott adds that he has long assumed that his efforts to bring federal dollars and private investment to Mississippi would benefit blacks more than anyone else, and that that should be sufficient to prove his goodwill. But one black constituent, a man who has worked at the shipyard and on the shrimp boats along the coast, set him straight. Says Lott: "He told me, 'I think you're good for the area, but black people aren't going to support you until you get to know us better.' So he introduced me to some folks, and I've tried to hear their views."
If Lott wants to reach out to blacks and is not a racist, why has he addressed segregationist groups and mused about his Confederate heroes? "Part of it's just habit," says a Lott confidante. Lott has seen the "segs" as part of his constituency. But he knows now that the cost of winking at them is very high, not so much among blacks as among white moderate voters and among national G.O.P. leaders.
Even as Lott tried to put the controversy behind him, he ensured that it would persist. He announced that he would discuss it for an hour this week on the Black Entertainment Television channel, owned by Robert Johnson, a Mississippi native who is black. Meanwhile, Democrats are debating whether to seek a resolution that would formally censure Lott, which they could introduce as soon as Congress returns to Washington on Jan. 7.
Lott would dearly love to avoid that sort of escalation. He said he was encouraged over the weekend by expressions of support from Senate colleagues and Mississippi constituents. It's hard to know what may have changed in Trent Lott's heart. But what's certain is that he knows how to count votes. And if he calculates that it's safe for a Southern, white Republican to forgo the old racial code words, that's a measure of progress.
-- With reporting by James Carney, John F. Dickerson and Douglas Waller/Washington and Jackson Baker/Oxford
Copyright © 2002 Time Inc.