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Mark Shields is a nationally known columnist and commentator.

Mark Shields: How dumb is Trent Lott?

By Mark Shields
Creators Syndicate

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WASHINGTON (Creators Syndicate) -- In one intriguing excuse for why he publicly waxed nostalgic for the half century after a Strom Thurmond presidency in which America -- having been led by Thurmond, a life-and-death enemy of President Truman's desegregating of the U.S. armed services and his ban on racial discrimination in the civil service -- "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years," Republican Senate leader Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, said he had "made a mistake of the head, not of the heart."

That is unarguable. We have no MRI on the purity or impurity of Lott's heart. But we know for sure that there is precious little in the man's head.

Just how dumb is Trent Lott? He asks us to forgive him for being mixed-up about the segregationist 1948 politics of Dixiecrat Thurmond, because then "I was only 7-years-old." But what about 1964, when Trent Lott was a 22-year-old graduate of Ole Miss -- where he had opposed the court-ordered admission of a single, qualified black Mississippian and nine-year Air force veteran, James Meredith -- a time about which Lott has admitted, "You could say I favored segregation"?

1964 was the year when 20 black churches in his home state were burned to the ground by white supremacists, some of whom -- in conspiracy with Mississippi law enforcement officials -- murdered Andrew Goodman, Michael Schwerner and James Chaney because they dared to help black Americans living in Mississippi fight for their constitutional rights. Was there even a nanosecond of doubt or introspection? If so, it did not stop Trent Lott from working tirelessly to become the protege of -- and, in 1972, at the age of 30, the successor to -- white supremacist Rep. William D. Colmer of Mississippi.

Did it ever unnerve young, ambitious Lott, before he began his 30 years in Congress, that his home state -- crippled by hate, mired in squalor and literally lawless -- was dead last among all 50 states when measured by literacy, education, crime, infant mortality, voter registration, wealth and availability of medical assistance? That one-third of his state's families lived below the poverty level; that one in four households lacked plumbing; that the average Mississippian had less than nine years of schooling? Could this be the idyllic Mississippi that historian Trent Lott believes would have been preserved from "all these problems over all these years" by a President Strom Thurmond?

Of course not. Trent Lott, superstar, was using the obvious and ugly shorthand of politics. Did he really think we did not know what he meant by "all these problems" (which he had used before in 1980, at the age of 38)? That the wink and the nudge to his good old boys meant enforced desegregation, federally guaranteed voting-rights and federal open-housing laws?

After he got to Congress, Lott opposed President Reagan and voted instead to end the federal government's commitment to guaranteeing voting rights of all citizens. He offered himself as a character witness for Bob Jones University in defense of its ban on interracial dating. Having served as chairman of his party's platform committee, Trent Lott -- then 42 -- announced to a Sons of the Confederacy meeting that "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform."

Lott either is so dumb that he believed all this garbage, or he believed that this garbage was what his "home boys" wanted to hear, or he believed that the rest of us were too dumb or disinterested to notice the games he was playing.

So slow is Trent Lott, today at the age of 61, that he needed a week of relentless, public criticism before he remembered to mention publicly that, largely because of "all these problems over all these years," his home state now has more black elected officials than any state in the union. Of course, because of the sub-species of politics Lott, among others, has practiced, of the 9,040 black elected officials in office in the United States today, exactly 50 of them ran and won as Republicans. Rhetorically, the GOP may be the party of Lincoln, but realistically, it remains the party of Trent Lott.

We now have further evidence of the manifold "mistakes of the mind" the limited Trent Lott has made. The question now before, not the House, but the Senate Republicans: Are they dumb enough to think the rest of us won't notice if they keep Trent Lott as their leader?

Click here for more from Creators Syndicate.

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