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Sen. Trent Lott discusses comments on BET

Transcript of interview

Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi
Republican Sen. Trent Lott of Mississippi

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(CNN) -- Senate Republican leader Trent Lott of Mississippi appeared Monday on Black Entertainment Television, in an interview with BET anchor Ed Gordon.

Lott again apologized for his comments about the 1948 segregationist presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond, and he discussed his present and past stances on civil rights issues.

GORDON: Thanks for being with us, senator. I appreciate it.

LOTT: Thanks for giving me this opportunity to visit with you and speak to your audience tonight.

GORDON: Let me ask you, first, before we get into the comments and the like, do you see, as many have characterized it over the course of the last couple of days, as you being in a fight for your political future?

LOTT: Ed, I don't think that's really relevant. The important thing is to recognize the hurt that I caused and ask for forgiveness and find a way to turn this into a positive thing, and try to make amends for what I've said and for what others have said and done over the years. I'm looking for this to be not only an opportunity for redemption, but to do something about it.

And I regret it. But I'm now trying to find a way to deal with the understandable hurt that I have caused. You can, you know, say it was innocent, but it was insensitive at the very least and repugnant, frankly.

GORDON: That being said, though, part of what you've suggested is you want to be able to undo some of the wrongs by virtue of legislation and the like. And if you were to do that, being majority leader will certainly help. Do you think that you can survive this fight and will you, indeed, as you suggested a couple of years ago, remain majority leader?

LOTT: I do think so, but it's going, you know, (to) depend on the realization that I am going to have to make changes and make amends and do something about it.

I've been reaching out, talking to a lot of different people, African-Americans -- seeking their advice -- pastors, media, business leaders and looking for their suggestions of what we can do.

J.C. Watts has been very helpful in making sure that I understand how people feel about what I said. And while he might have understood and those that were there realized it was a very, you know, light-hearted birthday celebration, it still was inexcusable.

I mean, even today I talked to John Lewis -- congressman Lewis from Georgia -- and I said, "You know, I heard you on 'Meet the Press,' and you talked about ..."

GORDON: Inviting you to travel with him, to go out.

LOTT: Yes, but also another thing that I picked up on, the need for perhaps us to develop a plan, working together in a bipartisan way, bicameral, and multi-racial, you know, young and old, men and women from all sections of the country to have a task force of reconciliation; sit down and talk.

A lot of, I think, what is wrong here is not enough communication, not enough understanding of how people feel and how, you know, there has been immoral leadership in my part of the country for a long time.

Progress has been made ...

GORDON: Were you a part of that?

LOTT: Yes, I can't deny that. And I -- you know, that -- I believe that I have changed and that I'm trying to do a better job. But yes, I'm a part of the region and the history that has not always done what it was supposed to have done.

But let me tell you ...

GORDON: Let me do that before you go on, and I promise you I'll let you get to that. But clear up a couple of things for me, if you will.

First being, in the statement that you say was off the cuff -- an off-the-cuff remark, you said "We wouldn't have had all the problems that we've had over these years," and as you know it's been reported that 22 years ago you essentially said the same thing about Strom Thurmond.

What problems specifically are you talking about when you say that?

LOTT: When I got to know Strom Thurmond -- really know him -- was in the, I guess, in the '80s, late '70s or '80s, I saw a senator that was committed in the fight against communism, that had fought Nazism, a senator that was for fiscal responsibility, you know, and one that also thought that law and order was very important, protecting people of all races against crime. That's what his focus was.

GORDON: But you also saw a senator that personified for years segregation.

LOTT: Yes, but let me tell you ...

GORDON: Did you not, though?

LOTT: I did. I did.

GORDON: And you knew and understood what he stood for?

LOTT: I -- absolutely I did. And let me tell you what I said on the floor of the United States Senate about him, in a serious moment with thinking about what I was going to say.

This is what I had to say about Senator Thurmond. I was one of 36 senators that spoke praising him. Not one condemned his past, but six of us did comment on it, and I said Senator Thurmond is a different case in many ways. He is, of course, a different generation. And he exemplifies its strengths, just as he has worked to leave behind its shortcomings. He did reject the racist policies of the past and segregation and he tried to -- I think, tried to make amends for it and grow.

I talked about the shortcomings ...

GORDON: Sure.

LOTT: ... that existed then.

GORDON: And you know better than I the concern is that, perhaps, you've not done so; that perhaps much of what we see today is style over substance. Let's be honest: You would not be sitting here with me this evening had it not been for this.

LOTT: That's true, except that, you know, years ago, I've done interviews before with Black Entertainment Television reporters.

But, look, I don't want to get this into a position of making excuses. I accept the fact that I made a terrible mistake, used horrible words, caused hurt. I'm sorry about that. I've apologized for it. I've asked for forgiveness. And I'm going to continue to do that.

But in answer to your question a moment ago, it is about actions more than words. As majority leader, I can move an agenda that would have things that would be helpful to African-Americans and minorities of all kinds and all Americans, but specifically aimed at showing African-Americans that they have particular concerns and needs that we have to advance an agenda that will help rural and ...

GORDON: Sure.

LOTT: ... urban areas, education, so that every child really does have an education.

GORDON: But, senator, many of those African-Americans believe, quite frankly, that that was you speaking in code to constituents with a wink and a nod saying, "You know, the good old days."

So you tell us, so we won't have conjecture on what you meant, what did you mean when you said, "those problems"?

LOTT: I was talking about the problems of the defense and communism and budgets and governments sometimes that didn't do the job.

But again, I understand, Ed, that that was interpreted by many the way it was. And I should have been sensitive to that.

I, you know, obviously made a mistake. And I'm going to do everything I can to admit that and deal with it and correct it. And that's what I hope the people will give me a chance to do, to show that I -- there's an opportunity here. This is a wake-up call.

GORDON: All right.

LOTT: And this is an opportunity for me to do something about years of misbehavior.

GORDON: Well, senator, let's talk about those years of misbehavior, as you put it, and also go down your record; let you clarify some things.

We'll do that right after this. More with Senator Trent Lott. Back in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORDON: We're back with Senator Trent Lott.

Senator, let's talk a little bit about why so many people find this hard to accept. And that, quite frankly, as you know, is your past.

You have clearly admitted that you grew up in an environment that was segregated, that was, in fact, in many parts racist, that you yourself held the thought that segregation was the best way to go throughout a number of years in your life. Your voting record has not been the best by virtue of comparing it to what the civil rights community has suggested is the best way to go. We'll go down a couple of those votes.

But tell me, was there a period in time in your life where you believed yourself now, in reflection, to have been either racist or prejudice?

LOTT: Let me go back to the roots that you referred to. First of all, you, you know, you are who you are by virtue of where you are born. I didn't create the society I was born into. In fact, I was born to parents that had very meager means.

My dad was a sharecropper. He raised cotton on somebody else's land. My mother did teach school in a three-room schoolhouse. When they came to Pascagoula, my dad worked in a shipyard.

And so, you know, there was a society then that was wrong and wicked. I didn't create it and I didn't even really understand it for many, many years.

There was -- look, I feel very strongly about my faith, and I have grown over the years. But in order to be a racist, you have to feel superior. I don't feel superior to you at all. I don't believe any man or any woman is superior to any other ...

GORDON: But did you always hold that view?

LOTT: I think I did. I mean, I grew up in a religious family and I had concerns about what I saw over the years. I didn't act on it ...

GORDON: So when you moved ...

LOTT: ... when I -- maybe I should have.

GORDON: When you moved to hold blacks out of your fraternity, for instance, in college -- Sigma Nu -- you didn't feel superior at that time?

LOTT: I did not. But, you know, that was wrong at that time. And I'm not condemning even the system. I was wrong ...

GORDON: What was your feeling?

LOTT: ... even participation in that.

You know, at the time I was not as active a participant as some people would have said. But that's irrelevant now. That was 30, 40 -- 40 years ago. And I have learned ...

GORDON: But there is relevance to the past.

LOTT: Oh, absolutely. But there is also change from the past and redemption, Ed. Who among us does not mature?

You know, my daughter, a few years ago said, "Dad, you know, you've changed," to me. She said, "Well, you know, you used to be quicker to anger, you wouldn't spend as much time, you didn't talk as much about your faith. What happened?" She asked me what happened.

And I said, "Well, as you get older you learn from mistakes. You begin to love people in a different sort of way. You understand that you cannot be ..."

GORDON: When would you say you changed?

LOTT: Well, I think it was evolutionary. I think it happened -- part of it is when you get outside of a cocoon, when you live in a society or in a place or in a family, and then you begin to live in other places -- I think part of it was when I came to my home town of Pascagoula, blue-collar community, everybody worked in the shipyard or the paper mill.

When I got out of college, got into law school, I started studying civil rights suits, Civil Rights Act of 1964 -- remember I wrote a paper on it (inaudible) constitutional law.

But I think it really happened when I started to move around statewide. And I went into the poorest part of the state, I saw poverty I had never seen before. I saw education systems ...

GORDON: But you would say that you would have changed by the '90s. Fair?

LOTT: I was a very much changing, but it wasn't complete. In fact, it's never complete. You're not a perfect person. I have made mistakes. And I'm sure I'll make more.

GORDON: Let's go down the list and find why people find it hard to believe, those in the civil rights community in particular, that this is nothing but contrition because you find yourself in a rough spot.

You voted against the King holiday, you voted against funding the King commission after the holiday was put forth, you voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1990, you voted against the Voting Rights Act -- the extension of it in 1992. There are a myriad of opportunities to say to the black community, "You know what? I'm for you."

NAACP voting rights, the civil rights chart here, they gave you an F. The Conference on Civil Rights, a failing grade. Your connection with the Council for Conservative Citizens, many see that as a white supremacist group. All of this in place, it is hard for people to believe that you changed.

LOTT: Well, let me respond to that, if I could. There are a number of things that I've done in recent years that I think would show that I have been changing: the legislation I've sponsored, bills that I've moved. But I don't want to -- again, I don't want to give a list of litany.

Let me talk about the issues you raised.

GORDON: Let's talk about the King holiday.

LOTT: I want to talk about the King holiday. I want to go back to that.

I'm not sure we in America, certainly not white America and the people in the South, fully understood who this man was; the impact he was having on the fabric of this country.

GORDON: But you certainly understood it by the time that vote came up, senator.

LOTT: Well, but ...

GORDON: You knew who Dr. King was at that point.

LOTT: I did, but I've learned a lot more since then. I want to make this point very clearly.

I have a high appreciation for him being a man of peace, a man that was for nonviolence, a man that did change this country. I've made a mistake. And I would vote now for a Martin Luther King holiday.

GORDON: All right. Let me do this, let me take a break. We'll come back with more right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORDON: Back with Trent Lott.

Senator, if we look at this in its totality, a man who clearly, as far as the civil rights community, voted almost lock-step against them in all of the legislation they felt would forward this country, when you look at the past that you've acknowledged, when you look at some of the verbiage that you've used suggesting, in terms of the King holiday, the fact that we've not done it, made a holiday for other people more deserving -- these are your words -- when you read those things, when you hear them, do you find reason to believe it's hard for people to believe that, again, this is nothing but contrition?

LOTT: Absolutely, I do understand it. And it is a contrition. You know, there are explanations, you know, I have not been for creating more paid federal holidays that do cost $300 million or more, I was for consolidating the Washington and Lincoln birthdays into one, but that now pales in comparison to what needs to be done, and how we can help to bring America together along racial lines.

GORDON: Why didn't you come out before and say this?

LOTT: You know ...

GORDON: Why didn't you come out, as Strom Thurmond did at one point, and say, "Look, I'm a changed man, I was wrong in the past, this is how I'm going to right it now"?

LOTT: Well, let me give you some examples. On the Voting Rights Act -- you mentioned that -- I've always felt that Voting Rights Act should apply to the whole country, not just to one region. I understand why that was true, but we should have it apply everywhere.

And one of the things that I'm doing to try to atone for that is supporting election reform, so that everybody has a chance to vote and have their votes actually count. And that's why I think we need to have fully funded election reform legislation.

GORDON: What about affirmative action?

LOTT: I'm for that. I think you should reach out to people ...

GORDON: Across the board?

LOTT: Absolutely, across the board. That's why I'm so proud of my own alma mater now, University of Mississippi, that obviously had a difficult time in the 60s and 70s, now led by an outstanding chancellor, Robert Khayat, that has gotten rid of the Confederate flag, that has now has an institute of reconciliation, that has a leadership ...

GORDON: Yet your votes in the past have not suggested that you are for affirmative action.

LOTT: I am for affirmative action. And I practice it. I have had African-Americans on my staff, and other minorities, but particularly African-Americans, since the mid-1970s.

I have had a particular program ...

GORDON: But to have one on one's staff -- you understand the difference, though, to have a black on your staff and to push legislation that would help African-Americans, minorities across the board, are completely different.

LOTT: You know, again, you can get into arguments about timetables and quotas.

Here's what I think, though. I think you've got to have an aggressive effort in America to make everybody have a chance.

Harvard has a program where one in three of their students are alumni children. That's -- you know, we need to balance this out more, and I think that we should encourage minorities to have an opportunity across the board. And a number of states have done that in unique ways, University of Texas is one of them.

GORDON: Let me take another break. We'll be back right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

GORDON: Back with Senator Trent Lott.

You were making an interesting observation just a moment ago on the commercial break. Would you share that?

LOTT: Look, I have a lot of good friends, young African-Americans, business men and women, people in my state that I have reached out to and helped and going to continue to help, and a number of them are speaking up about it.

And it really it hurts me now to -- for people to have the impression that I don't really care.

GORDON: But you also -- you made the suggestion that you didn't believe that your voting record ...

LOTT: Well, yes, that's what I'm saying, my actions, I think, don't reflect my voting record. I have actually tried very hard to be an affirmative action participant, a person that believes in ...

GORDON: But your voting rights record is very much your action, though, senator.

LOTT: Well, that's true. But I hope that, you know ...

GORDON: And that being said, don't you think that that speaks louder?

LOTT: You know, my actions in directly trying to help individuals and schools and communities and education in my state and community development and infrastructure and to create jobs so that people can get up put of poverty and get a good education and get a job and be able to do more for their children, doesn't -- isn't that a commitment that really matters?

But, you know, let me go back to the point -- the basic point. When I went to my home church on Sunday, the preacher talked about the seasons of life, the good times, the bad times, and a time for correction.

There's a period where you ...

GORDON: And that's the season you're in now?

LOTT: That's the season I'm in.

GORDON: So what do you do now, with about two minutes left, Senator, to correct it for African-Americans in particular, but for America, quite frankly? We're a better nation if all are included.

LOTT: I hope that maybe this bad experience for me, and the mistake I made, will wind up helping lead to better relations and improvements. And ...

GORDON: Will you take a closer look at the people you align yourself with?

LOTT: Absolutely, I will. And I will listen to and talk to African-American leaders and African-American men and women across -- and other minorities.

GORDON: But will you take another look at groups like the Council of Conservative Citizens?

LOTT: Absolutely. I -- you know, I absolutely will do that.

GORDON: What about Charles Pickering, who you backed very strongly, quite frankly ...

LOTT: Absolutely, yes.

GORDON: Absolutely ...

LOTT: I did back him, because he is a fine man with an outstanding record who actually took risks with his own life to -- in actions against the Klan.

GORDON: But you know where I'm going with that question.

LOTT: I do. Sure.

GORDON: You would take another look at him now?

LOTT: I know his heart. He is a good man and is not a racist or a segregationist in any way. The things -- many of the things said against him he was not guilty of.

But having said that, you know, I'll have to weigh all of my actions differently and more carefully.

GORDON: You said during your press conference you would not step down for something that you believe yourself not to be. If the president calls and asks that you step aside for the party's sake, would you?

LOTT: I think it would be a mistake. I don't believe he would do that.

GORDON: He says he won't.

LOTT: And I think that it's more important for me to stay in the job I've been elected to and show that I can make a difference.

I'm asking people to forgive my mistake and give me a chance. See if I can make a difference, if I can really help people feel better about our society, our government and about me.

GORDON: Announced today, January 6th your colleagues will meet -- your Republican colleagues -- to see if, indeed, you can remain the face of the Republican Party. Many of them believe you to be out -- some of them believe you to be out of step. Do you believe you'll survive that?

LOTT: That meeting was one that I urged and supported because, obviously, we've got to sit down and talk about this. It's not enough for me to say we're going to do things differently. I've got to have my colleagues...

GORDON: You believe you'll survive it?

LOTT: ... to join me.

Yes, I do because of what I'm going to say, what I'm going to do. And I think this actually can help us move an agenda that will be good for American, all Americans, equal opportunity for everybody, an improved society. And I'm going to work to make that happen.

GORDON: All right. Senator Trent Lott, thanks for joining us this evening.

LOTT: Thank you very much, Ed.



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