Just a week ago, soon-to-be Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott was undoubtedly counting the days until January -- the moment when he would seize the reigns of Congress' higher chamber and commence the GOP revolution heralded last November.
What a difference a week makes. At first, Lott stayed silent after he was caught waxing nostalgic for the Jim Crow days at a weekend party for retiring fellow Republican Strom Thurmond. But after African-American leaders forced the issue -- and TV networks belatedly awoke to the story -- Lott's office has been transformed into a veritable popcorn machine of apologies, denials and retractions. Lott's days are now spent groveling before media cameras, as the once-brash Mississippi Senator trips over himself to bemoan his "slip" and express "regret."
The problem is, this isn't the first time. Lott's claim that he's guilty of nothing more than a temporary "poor choice of words" would be more convincing if his political career wasn't riddled with bigotry and intolerance. Far from being a one-time gaffe, Lott's noxious statements are in line with a lifetime of associations with racist people and causes.
Most notable has been Senator Lott's close ties to the Conservative Citizen' s Council, an openly racist and anti-Semitic group which grew out of the terrorist White Citizen's Councils, and which today, among other unpalatable positions, calls interracial marriage "white genocide."
In 1992, Lott was keynote speaker at the Council's national board meeting, ending his speech by enthusing that "the people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy." Throughout the 1990s, Lott maintained his intimate relations with the CCC, hosting a private meeting with Council leaders in 1997, writing a column for the CCC magazine Citizen's Informer for eight years, and attending at least two CCC banquets in his honor.
In a comical and disturbing move, when confronted with evidence of these close associations, Lott claimed he had "no firsthand knowledge" of the CCC. CCC officials curtly responded that Lott was a "friend" and a "paid-up member."
It doesn't stop there. There's also Lott's 1984 address to the Convention of the Sons of Confederate Veterans in Biloxi, Mississippi, in which he claimed "the spirit of Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican Platform." The statement was covered in the winter 1984 issue of the right-wing Southern Partisan magazine, in which Lott also explained that he opposes civil rights legislation, and said that the Martin Luther King Jr. national holiday is "basically wrong."
The Jefferson Davis reference was telling. Lott has something of an obsession with the former President of the breakaway Confederate States of America. In the late 1970s, Lott spearheaded a successful campaign to have Davis' citizenship retroactively restored. More recently, Lott fought to gain custody of the desk Davis used during his Confederate reign, so that it could furnish Lott's Senate offices in Washington.
As Lott's "racism-gate" gains steam, more questionable antics will certainly surface. The onset of the Reagan era, for example, seems to have excited Lott's bigoted passions. We know, for example, that at a 1980 Republican campaign rally for Reagan, Lott -- in a statement eerily similar to his "lighthearted" musings last week --announced that if the country had elected the segregationist Strom Thurmond "30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today." The rally and Lott's statement were covered by the Jackson Clarion-Ledger on Nov. 3, 1980, and again by the Washington Post this week.
Yesterday's San Francisco Chronicle also highlighted Lott's well-known fight in 1981 to restore the non-profit tax status of South Carolina's Bob Jones University, which the IRS had revoked due to the school's prohibition of inter-racial dating. At the time, Lott issued a "friend of the court" brief arguing that "racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."
It will keep coming -- how he voted to de-fund the Martin Luther King, Jr., Holiday commission in 1994 and opposed the King holiday in 1983; how he voted against extending the Voting Rights Act, designed to ensure ballot access for African-Americans, in both 1982 and 1990; on and on.
The pattern is clear: Republican Senator Trent Lott has done more than flirt with racism-it's a long-term relationship. And such a love affair with bigotry is intolerable for one of the most powerful political figures in America.
If President George W. Bush and leaders of Congress and the Republican Party fail to call for the removal of the unreconstructed racist known as Trent Lott, their silence and acquiescence will speak volumes.
Chris Kromm is Executive Director of the Institute for Southern Studies, which publishes Southern Exposure magazine. www.southernstudies.org He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org