WASHINGTON -- On that dull gray morning after, when official Washington awoke to the news that Ol' Trent had gone and shot off his mouth again at Ol' Strom's centenary toot, it just wasn't no big deal. Official Washington had always known that the mental landscape of Trent Lott, like that of incoming House Republican leader Tom DeLay, wasn't suitable for inspection by small children or swing voters, what with Lott's loyalties to old-time Mississippi and DeLay's periodic assertions that the United States was, love it or leave it, a Christian nation.
Now that Lott's tenure as majority leader hangs by a thread, it's important to recall the initial indifference of the bipartisan Beltway establishment to remarks that should have been met with instantaneous outrage. But Lott and DeLay were old news. Who really cared about their inner lives?
What mattered was that these guys ran the Congress: They moved the appropriations bills, saw to the interests of home-state concerns like WorldCom (from Lott's Mississippi) and Enron (from DeLay's Texas), blocked any chance for real prescription drug coverage and threatened big businesses that dared to write checks to the occasional Democrat. They were pols; they were pros. If Lott wanted to think the country "wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years" if it had just voted for a rabid segregationist instead of Harry S. Truman, well, that didn't really affect what he did in his job, did it? Besides, he was talking about 1948. In this city of the five-minute news cycle, who cared about 1948? No harm, no foul.
Truth be told, official Washington is largely inured to right-wing excess. After more than 30 years of Republican rightward drift -- beginning with the party's bid to attract segregationist Democrats in the mid-'60s and continuing through Ronald Reagan's supply-side revolution, Newt Gingrich's "contract with America" and now President Bush's drive to enrich the rich at all costs -- the GOP's radicalism has become just another part of the Washington scenery.
Since the mid-'90s, all the Republicans' congressional leaders, save only current House speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, have been Southerners, promoting a harsher conservatism than anything even Reagan contemplated. Bush shares their right-wing zealousness, though by masquerading brilliantly as a moderate he has given the entire movement a renewed air of respectability. Lott is a pillar of this new conservative order, so he can't really be a lunatic -- can he? So what if he voices fond memories of the dank, segregationist South?
Initially, then, those inside the Beltway acted as if nothing had happened. For several days silence reigned on both sides of the aisle, until the tenacity of a few reporters raised the incident to such prominence that the stench was impossible to ignore.
Perhaps the most disgraceful reaction, and certainly the most bewildering, came from Lott's Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle. "There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently, and I'm sure this was one of those cases for him," Daschle said.
How's that again? I understand that there's a code of professional courtesy that operates between the leaders; I didn't realize it extended to ignoring affirmations of America's apartheid past.
Daschle's willingness to give Lott a pass on this one is an extreme illustration of how defensive, denatured and defanged the Democratic establishment has become. Lott's remarks were an affront not merely to America's racially egalitarian values but to the bedrock principles of the modern Democratic Party. Coming on the heels of the November election in which the Democrats lost the Senate in large part because they ran on the narrowest of messages and affirmed no basic Democratic principles, Daschle's silence should be grounds for ending his tenure as party leader, too. A Democratic leader who fails to realize that the Republican leader has just offended the moral sense of the nation has forfeited his claim to the job.
There's no sharper contrast in American politics today than that between the Democrats' initial failure to chastise Lott and the Republicans' glee in attacking incoming Democratic House leader Nancy Pelosi. The "latte-sipping" San Francisco Democrat was said to personify "a lurch to the left" (in the New Republic's assessment) that would doom the Democrats. She was bashed for coming from a district that was home to a large number of gays. She was attacked for having organized her party's opposition in the House to the resolution authorizing Bush to go to war against Iraq without United Nations sanction -- never mind that most Americans don't want the U.S. to go to war without the U.N.'s blessing. It's worth noting that hunting season on Pelosi began well before she had so much as opened her mouth to say anything about where she'd take her party.
The double standard here is overpowering. Did anyone suggest that the Republicans were handicapped because their Senate leader came from a state that was the historical (and quite possibly, present-day) home to a higher percentage of white racists than any other? That DeLay's stated and restated belief that the U.S. is and should remain a Christian nation might just imperil the Republicans in this increasingly diverse and tolerant land?
Yet Democratic Party leaders have declined to attack Lott and DeLay for their extremism -- until, in Lott's case, the spreading outrage finally was heard in the party's innermost sanctums.
The initial Republican silence at Lott's comments was understandable, of course -- and not just because the GOP hoped the embarrassment would pass without notice. Lott's disastrous stroll down memory lane uncovered an entire history that the Republicans would greatly prefer to keep under wraps. It returned the Republicans to that fateful moment when they embraced the radical segregationist South, which, in the summer of 1964, was in full flight from a Democratic Party whose chieftain, President Lyndon B. Johnson, had just signed the Civil Rights Act. In recent days, DeLay has hastened to note that a majority of Republican senators voted for that act.
But today's Republican Party of Bush, Gingrich, Lott and DeLay has its roots in the presidential campaign that year of Barry Goldwater, who condemned the act fiercely, and in the efforts of Thurmond and other die-hard segregationists to mobilize the racist right of the Deep South into the Republican column. What Lott revealed was not merely his nostalgia for the days of white rule and white sheets. It was the conception -- in original sin -- of today's Republican Party.
But the modern Republican Party would rather not be reminded of its origins -- that it was born, like Yeats' images, "in the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart." The GOP made a devil's pact with white racism long ago in order to win elections. There was no Republican outcry at Lee Atwater's Willie Horton ads or at Jesse Helms' campaigns or at a host of other more subtle attempts to play on white fears or depress black turnout.
Now that Lott has bathed them all in their filth, the rage of the non-Southern right-wingers is boundless. Conservatives of all descriptions, from Rush Limbaugh to the Wall Street Journal's editorialists, have rushed forward to cleanse themselves of Lott's taint.
For the few remaining Republican moderates in the Senate, Lott's loose lips have presented an exquisite embarrassment and an electoral peril. Peter Fitzgerald, the first-term Republican senator from Illinois, faces a dicey reelection campaign two years hence. Can he hope to win in a state with a large black population and a sizable number of Republican moderates, after having voted for Lott for House majority leader? Self-proclaimed moderate Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, has already forgiven Lott, but there are Republican colleagues to his left -- Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island and Gordon Smith of Oregon, to name two -- who will make a mockery of all they profess to stand for if they stick with Trent.
Karl Rove, rest assured, doesn't care about the senators' feelings, but if forcing them to vote for Lott as majority leader means jeopardizing some Senate and House seats in '04 -- or, God forbid, Bush's ability to carry Northern swing states -- then he has probably already handed Lott a one-way ticket to a whites-only Palookaville. No thanks to his Republican colleagues, or his Democratic adversaries, or a weary and quiescent Beltway media, Lott is becoming what he's always actually been: yesterday's news.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and political editor of LA Weekly.
Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times