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Jeff Greenfield: WH sends signals on Lott

CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield
CNN senior analyst Jeff Greenfield

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NEW YORK (CNN) -- Embattled Sen. Trent Lott offered another apology Monday night for comments some have described as an endorsement of segregation. CNN anchor Bill Hemmer spoke with senior analyst Jeff Greenfield about the political furor -- and Lott's chances for holding onto his GOP leadership post in the Senate.

BILL HEMMER: The question remains today, can Trent Lott survive to lead his party in the Senate?

JEFF GREENFIELD: The headlines are all over today about the White House and what their position is right now. I think yesterday I mentioned on this very program that I thought the White House was doing everything except sending smoke signals telling him to go.

Here are the smoke signals. These are not accidental news stories. Above the fold, page one, "New York Times," "Republicans Say Lott Lacks Bush's Support." Same story in "The Washington Post," "Bush Won't Resist Leadership Change."

The reason why this is the root, is senators are very jealous of their prerogatives. They don't want a White House of either party telling them what to do. It's just letting them know he's not our guy. Get him out if you want to. If he's threatening to quit the Senate, we can live with that. It's hard to imagine a clearer signal coming from the other side of Pennsylvania Avenue, but you know what, he's a liability, we don't want him around.

HEMMER: Is there any message in any one of these articles that the White House is sending a message to Don Nickles to Bill Frist to get the momentum going, or not?

GREENFIELD: Sending a message, I think, to the 51 Republican senators saying, we know it's your decision, constitutional separation of powers, but we're telling you, he's not our guy ...You know what it reminds me of? It's the scene in "Godfather II" when they go to the informant and they tell him about the Roman generals who take a bath and slit their wrists, it's also an invitation to Trent Lott, saying, perhaps for the good of the party, you would like to consider another line of work.

HEMMER: So then, if he's not majority leader, does he stay in the Senate? Does he go back to Mississippi?

GREENFIELD: The nuclear weapon that he has supposedly had, is if you deprive me of the Senate leadership, I will leave the Senate. The Democratic governor of Mississippi puts in a Democratic senator, we are back to 50-50, and that threatens for control. The other message that is in all of the media is the White House is saying, we can live with that if that's what Trent Lott chooses to do.

It's hard to imagine a clearer signal coming from the White House that we just don't want -- we don't want Trent Lott speaking for the Republican Party, especially when we have conservative issues like judicial nominations, an end to racial preferences, vouchers, all of the things that conservatives and Republicans have been saying for years. This is what will help African-Americans have been saying for years, this is what will really help African-Americans ...I guess the kind way to put this is it's a little tone deaf.

I was thinking, Jimmy Carter said the time for racial discrimination is over in 1970 when he was inaugurated as governor of Georgia. This sounds like something that would be courageous for a white Republican from the South to say in about 1965 or '70. By 2002, it just sounds -- you saw the reaction from Ed Gordon when he said, yes, I'm for affirmative action, he almost fell out of his chair.

HEMMER: Five times he's said he's sorry, five times a mea culpa. Why do you believe right now none of the apologies are sticking?

GREENFIELD: For two reasons, one, this all came after his political future was in jeopardy. It wasn't something said 20 or 30 years ago, reflecting on the history of race in the South.

The second reason is that it ... calls people to look back on the career and say, this is odd, Trent Lott came into the Congress in 1972. The civil rights bill had passed. Blacks were enfranchised throughout the South. That fight was over. And he seems repeatedly to have this kind of wistful nostalgia for a time when segregation was the law of the land.

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