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The Other Trent Lotts
Published on Monday, December 23, 2002 by the New York Times
The Other Trent Lotts
by Bob Herbert
 

Having thrown Trent Lott overboard, Republican leaders seem to think they are now absolved of any further responsibility for the racism and ethnic insensitivity that have tainted their party. The problem is now supposed to go away.

They are deluded.

The problem isn't going away because Republican leaders haven't rid themselves of the habit of playing to the closet racists and the Confederate flag-waving yahoos who mean so much to the G.O.P. For 40 years the party has gone out of its way to court the enemies of black people. It's an offense for which it should be begging forgiveness.

Americans have made tremendous progress on matters of racial and ethnic tolerance over the past three or four decades. But those gains were made in spite of the ugly, backward, divisive and destructive behavior of many, many politicians in the Republican Party, including those at the very top.

And that pattern continues. Bill Frist is supposed to be the new, more moderate, more tolerant face of the G.O.P. But he's more mask than face. Senator Frist is a favorite among Republicans in part because of the success he had as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. His job in that post was to raise money and otherwise assist Republicans running for the Senate.

Now that Senator Frist is ascending to the majority leader's post, it's interesting to note the Republicans' choice to succeed him as chairman of the senatorial committee. It's none other than Senator George Allen of Virginia, a Neanderthal on matters of race who, like Trent Lott, all but worships at the altar of the Confederacy.

A few years ago, when he was governor of Virginia, Mr. Allen issued a proclamation declaring April "Confederate History and Heritage Month." From Mr. Allen's pro-Confederate perspective, the Civil War was a struggle for "independence and sovereign rights." Independence, in this case, does not refer to the independence of black slaves.

I'd like to know if Senator Allen feels we'd all have been better off if the South had won the Civil War. It's a fair enough question. Mr. Allen loved the old Confederacy so much he displayed the Confederate flag in his living room. He was a little touchy about it, though. When someone accused him of flying the flag in his living room, he took umbrage. "It was never flying," he said. "It was nailed to a wall."

Gee, I wonder why there are so few blacks in the Republican Party.

The Trent Lott fiasco lifted the fig leaf and exposed the shameful behavior of the G.O.P. for all Americans to see. Suddenly there was a spotlight on the party's shortcomings. That's the reason party leaders were so anxious to toss the clownish senator from Mississippi into the drink. Mr. Lott had to go not because of any hurt to black people that his remarks and his leadership might have caused, but because of the potential harm to his party, which has made race-baiting a cornerstone of its electoral philosophy.

The G.O.P. could cleanse itself of the taint of racism, but it's not so inclined. For one thing, party leaders would have to admit that they have a problem in this area and take steps to remedy it across the board. Don't hold your breath. This is a party that will smile in the face of a Colin Powell while waving Confederate flags behind his back. Republicans are not turned off by the George Allens of the party. He's in the party mainstream.

The G.O.P. has spent more than 30 years demonizing Democrats for trying to help racial and ethnic minorities. It has spent more than 30 years stomping on the voting rights of blacks. And it has gone out of its way to pack the federal courts with judges who are hostile to the interests and the rights of minorities.

The party won't be rid of these sins and their consequences until its leaders acknowledge them, and take meaningful steps to do better. Many of the officials and operatives who threw Trent Lott overboard have voting records and campaign histories that are as bad as Senator Lott's, or worse. The real lessons of the Trent Lott experience are lost on them.

Mr. Lott may be gone as Senate Republican leader, but the G.O.P. is still hot for the racist vote. It's a vile addiction that's guaranteed to bring a great deal of additional grief for the party, and for the rest of us.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company

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