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BET anchor assesses Lott interview

BET anchor Ed Gordon

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CNN's Jonathan Karl reports on an apologetic Trent Lott's appearance on BET. (December 17)
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CNN's John King reports that Lott's role as Senate Republican leader may be in jeopardy. (December 16)
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Source: Congressional Quarterly

NEW YORK (CNN) -- Fighting for his political survival, Sen. Trent Lott appeared Monday night on Black Entertainment Television to renounce his comments that seemingly endorsed then-segregationist candidate Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential bid.

Lott, the Mississippi Republican and Senate GOP leader, touched off a firestorm when he made the remarks at a December 5 party celebrating the 100th birthday of Thurmond, who is retiring from the Senate. Senate Republicans have scheduled a January 6 meeting to decide whether Lott will keep his leadership post.

BET anchor Ed Gordon joined CNN's Paula Zahn on Tuesday morning to discuss his 30-minute interview with Lott.

ZAHN: ... Some folks who watched the interview viewed it as sort of the eleventh-hour conversion of a guy trying to save his hide. Is that the way you saw the exercise?

GORDON: Well, I mean clearly, as I said to him during the interview, he would not have been with me had it not been for, as he calls it, the verbal faux pas. And I think there is some political expediency.

Now whether this is the metamorphosis of Trent Lott or not, I don't know. Only he can tell that, and only time will tell.

ZAHN: Did you think he was sincere?

GORDON: I think that there were parts of the interview that I think he was sincere. I think he's sincere about growing up in the time and the area and environment he grew up in.

I don't know if it's for me as a journalist to really dictate whether he was sincere about the other things. I think that it's going to be hard to change those who see him as the devil and put rings on him by virtue of what he said [Monday] night.

ZAHN: ... [His] use of the word repugnant [in the interview] -- I don't think that's the first time we've heard that. Did that seem well-rehearsed?

GORDON: Well, I think that clearly you and I both know when you enter an interview like this, you're going to practice. You're going to sit with your staff, and they're going to assume certain questions will be asked. And he's a consummate politician. I think he was rehearsed. I think some of the questions may have surprised him a bit. There were a couple that I don't think he had a clear-cut answer to. It didn't seem rehearsed. He seemed to stumble through some of the answers.

And whether the contrition that we see is honest or not, that's hard, that's too hard to tell, Paula.

ZAHN: And where do you think you caught him off guard? Because we all know how tough it is to prepare for interviews like this.

GORDON: Sure. Sure.

ZAHN: I mean it really is very much a collaborative effort on both sides.

GORDON: Well, I'll tell you where he caught most people off guard, and I don't know that I caught him as much as he caught most people when he talked about his support of affirmative action, and clearly his voting record did not belie any support of affirmative action.

I think he was surprised at the comeback when he talked about not knowing about Martin Luther King [Jr.] until the '60s and he started to learn [about] him. And I said certainly you knew who Martin Luther King was [in 1983] when you decided not to vote for the King holiday.

So I think there were moments like that, and I think you have to read between the lines and determine whether or not you are going to believe whether this is an honest conversion.

ZAHN: That's where it seems to me people are most skeptical, when he acknowledged in his interview with you, "Hey, look, my actions don't necessarily reflect my voting record."

GORDON: And ...

ZAHN: What did that contradiction mean to you?

GORDON: Well, yes, it was huge. Well, I, as you may remember, I followed up with saying, "But as a politician, really, isn't your voting record your action, particularly as a public figure? Not as a personal citizen, but as a public figure -- those are your actions." So it's hard to juxtapose the two and figure out whether they can indeed walk side by side.

ZAHN: At the very beginning of our conversation, you reflected on a part of the conversation where Trent Lott talked about the climate in which he grew up in.

Do you give him any credit for acknowledging that and acknowledging the work that needs to be done?

GORDON: Well, you know, the question is -- and I asked him later on -- why the acknowledgement now, you know? Did this all come in part of the firestorm you find yourself in in the last two weeks? Did you not know that you were part of that a month ago, a year ago, five years ago? And why the acknowledgement now?

And I don't know that he answered that to the -- in fair-minded people's minds -- to the satisfaction to what they were hoping to hear.

ZAHN: Do you think he can survive this? And by that I mean not necessarily a Senate job, but his leadership in the Republican Party and as head of the Senate?

GORDON: Well, I asked him whether or not he believed he could survive it. As of [Monday], he said he thought he could. As you know, he suggested that he did not think it appropriate for the president to ask him to step down.

I asked him whether when his colleagues convene on January 6, whether he's going to indeed be the majority leader at that point. He believes so. Now, whether that's blind faith, denial or just reading tea leaves with a lot of hope, I don't know. I think as the days go on, it's much, much harder for him to hang on.

ZAHN: Well, I guess his fate may be decided by his fellow Senate colleagues ... as of January 6, when they convene and try to figure out who they want to lead the party.

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