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In the Crossfire

Watts discusses dispute over Lott

Republican Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma
Republican Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma

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(CNN) -- After Sen. Trent Lott stepped down as majority leader Friday, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, the only African-American member of the Republican leadership in the House or the Senate, issued a statement calling Lott "a teammate and a friend who put the healing of our nation and the future of our party ahead of himself."

Watts, the outgoing chairman of the House Republican Conference and author of "What Color is a Conservative?" joined Paul Begala and Robert Novak "In the Crossfire" to talk about Lott's career in Congress and how the controversy surrounding the former majority leader could affect the Republican Party.

NOVAK: When President Bush made his statement after the resignation of Trent Lott, he said the following: "As majority and minority leader of the Senate, Trent Lott improved education for the American people; he led the way in securing tax relief; he strengthened our national security; and he stood for a bold and effective foreign policy. Trent is a valued friend and a man I respect."

Now, if the president had said any of those things in the last two weeks -- he didn't say one kind word about Trent Lott -- he [would] have saved him. That's a little disingenuous: to shower Sen. Lott with praise after he's out of the picture, isn't it?

WATTS: Well, Bob, Washington is a tough city. And I do think the president wanted to support the majority leader, but the reality is that the politics of this thing, he had to be careful. He was treading on thin ice. But I do think that the president sees Senator Lott as a friend, as a decent man. I don't think that he believes that Trent Lott is a racist.

But when this issue got into the arena of politics, let me tell you, it took on a life of its own. And that's unfortunate.

NOVAK: Congressman, let me just press you on that a little bit. You're about to leave the great Congress of the United States. You can be candid about this. If the idea that Trent Lott had spent all these years -- and I have known him for most of that time -- as a staff member in the House, a House member, a senator, spending all this time in the service of his country, that in those two weeks, could the president have said one kind word about him without committing suicide? Wasn't it possible just out of -- you're a lay preacher -- out of Christian decency, say a nice word about him?

WATTS: Bob, I honestly can't talk for the president, the administration or any other member of Congress. I can talk for me. And I think it was unfortunate how the thing was being handled. I talked to Senator Lott several times. And I asked him, "Trent, you know, I understand what your family's fixing to go through, what you're fixing to go through, what your grandkids are going to go through. Man, weigh that cost."

And you know, I think you do have to be careful in times like this that you don't pile on and you try to see this thing objectively and still try to have some decency about you in spite of the fact that you're in a very partisan-poisoned arena.

BEGALA: Congressman Watts, I want to read you a quote from Senator Charles Schumer. Chuck Schumer of New York is a man who gets elected by putting together biracial, multiracial coalitions in a very, very diverse state: New York. And this is what he said about the aftermath of Trent Lott's resignation.

"Changing the conductor won't make a difference if the band plays the same tune. In the wake of this episode, I hope the Republican Caucus will choose a leader who will work to bring Republicans and Democrats together to craft policies geared toward healing the racial divide."

Now, he sounded very similar to [Pennsylvania Senator] Arlen Specter, a Republican, who on this program last night said much the same thing, and, in fact, called on President Bush to support the University of Michigan's affirmative action program to show that Republicans, as well as Democrats, are committed to affirmative action. Is that a good policy?

WATTS: Well, you know Senator Schumer -- bless his heart -- he still doesn't get it. He thinks that because you don't pass his liberal policies that, you know, you're not doing anything. To say that Trent Lott and President Bush hadn't been involved in helping historical black colleges, working to pass the faith-based initiative that helps under-served communities, minority health care disparities, anti-poverty legislation -- Trent Lott has been on the front line in the Senate and assisted [Pennsylvania Republican Senator] Rick Santorum and myself in those efforts.

And I really do think Senator Lott went too far. I think he crossed the line. I think he made a mistake. But I think it was unfortunate the things he had to go through over the last couple of weeks. Because my eight years of dealing with him -- and I didn't know who Trent Lott was in 1994. But in 1995, when I came and I met him, I have known him for the last eight years, and I just have not seen anything in his character and my dealings with him that would ... define a racist flaw in his character.

So, you know, Senator Schumer, that's his mantra. He's supposed to say that. He plays this race issue much better than Trent Lott can play it, and it's unfortunate again that he -- I'm saddened that he would say that.

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