Haunted by Connections with Conservative Citizens Group
Charles Pope, CQ staff writer
February 2, 1999, 11:52AM. EST
last thing Trent Lott needs is another controversy with staying
floating around the Senate majority leader is a storm that has
been rumbling for weeks, fueled by race, partisan politics and,
most of all, the weather-makers at the Council of Conservative
Citizens and its leader, Gordon Lee Baum.
council claims 15,000 members nationally and has an active chapter
in Republican Lott's home state of Mississippi, according to the
Southern Poverty Law Center, which studies hate groups. The law
center and other critics characterize the council's agenda as
racist and white supremacist; at least one member of the Republican
National Committee has called the group "unsavory."
according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, "the reincarnation
of the racist white Citizens Councils" that became a potent
political force in the 1950s in the South to fight integration.
Moreover, the law center concludes the council is "shot through
with white supremacist views, members and political positions."
and other leaders vigorously dispute those labels, but writings
in council publications have likened interracial marriage to white
genocide and suggested that Abraham Lincoln was elected by communists.
not the type of group to which a national politician like Lott
wants to be linked. But linked he is, despite repeated efforts
to distance himself from the group and claims he was not aware
of their views.
has told them, no way can you use my name to further this. Not
only is it unauthorized, it is wrong," the senator's spokesman,
John Czwartacki, said. "He's condemned the racist or white
supremacist views of this or any group. This has run its course.
There isn't another shoe to drop."
Lott is having a hard time shaking the group and questions about
his connections. In large part that is because Baum will not keep
quiet. Baum is very much in demand by the media these days, and
every time he talks, he invaribly discusses the two times Lott
spoke at council functions (in 1992 and 1995); about official
writings from Lott that appeared in council publications; and
most of all, about a picture taken in Lott's office in 1997 showing
the senator smiling broadly, flanked by Baum and two other council
dismisses the photo as a routine perk bestowed on constituents
who visit Lott's office.
grates on Baum, who is angered by the negative tone of the publicity
his group has received and by what he sees as a betrayal by Lott.
there a law against right-wingers going to talk to their congressman?"
Baum asks. "We have nothing to hide."
how hard Lott tries to distance himself, questions remain because
his uncle Arnie Watson, a former Mississippi state senator and
current member of the council's executive board, remembers Lott
being an "honorary member." Watson and others find it
hard to fathom that Lott could be uninformed about a widely known
political group in his own state.
Washington, they like to use the word 'disingenuous,' " said
Bill Minor, a political columnist in Mississippi for 51 years,
when asked about Lott's assertion that he was unaware of the council's
had good reason to know what was going on, but if he didn't, he
was like the piano player in the house of ill repute who didn't
notice what was going on all around him."
isn't the only prominent politician to be tied to the council.
Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., one of the House managers in President Clinton's
impeachment trial before the Senate, was criticized for being
the keynote speaker at the council's semi-annual meeting last
year in South Carolina.
said he agreed to speak only because he was misled by the group's
portrayal of itself as more mainstream than it really was.
I had been aware white supremacist views occupied any place in
the council's philosophy," he wrote to the head of the group's
Washington, D.C., chapter, "I would never have agreed to
Jesse Helms, R-N.C., has also spoken to the group, as has Mississippi
Republican Gov. Kirk Fordice. Council officials in Mississippi
claim that 34 members of the state legislature are members. At
least one GOP national committeeman, Buddy Witherspoon of South
Carolina, is a member.
insists that politicians should not shun his group, saying it
is similar to countless other conservative organizations. The
Council has Jewish as well as African-American members, Baum said.
large-scale immigration, school busing and affirmative action
while fighting for such "Southern cultural issues" as
allowing the Confederate flag to fly over state capitols and the
playing of "Dixie" at public events.
many in Mississippi, it is old news that Lott has appeared at
council events; it has been widely reported and little discussed.
Most of the country, however, was introduced to the council during
a House Judiciary Committee hearing in December, when Harvard
law professor Alan M. Dershowitz criticized Barr for speaking
at the council's national meeting.
after, news reports of Lott's connection with the group began
discomfort continues because the group is getting heavy media
exposure. Baum has appeared on CNN and National Public Radio,
and been been interviewed for ABC's "Nightline" as well
as major newspapers on two continents.
step, time after time, he must recount Lott's involvement with
the group as well as his own doubts about what Lott knew.
Trent Lott know who we are? We've scratched our heads over this.
He knows a lot of these good ol' boys [who are council members
in Mississippi], and he says he never connected the dots,"
Baum said in an interview.
don't want to bad-mouth Trent Lott or Bob Barr. I give them the
benefit of the doubt, but I think they should have picked up what
we're about," he said.
who study Southern politics say it should come as no surprise
that Lott eventually bumped into a group such as the council.
Both family history (his uncle's involvement) and geography (being
a Republican in the South) made it all but inevitable the two
his prominent position, Lott is in demand by groups ranging from
conservative economic policy think tanks to those like the council.
"If you're a conservative Republican, you are going to have
these people coming after you," said Peyton D. Prospere,
a Jackson, Miss., attorney who is active in the state's Democratic
fundamental question is, how do you respond to them?" Prospere
politicians have turned down invitations to speak once they learned
the council's positions.
executive director of the state Republican Party, I have consistently
advised our elected officials to stay away from these guys,"
said Trey Walker, of the South Carolina GOP. "The C of CC
is not an organization that we work with or coordinate with or
do anything with because they have a very unsavory reputation."
disputes such characterizations.
are not meeting in cornfields by torch light," said Baum,
a St. Louis attorney who has been active for three decades in
conservative causes and founded the council in 1985. "We
are not bigots slithering out from under rocks."
might as well be, given the frosty treatment in recent days.
Chairman Jim Nicholson on Jan. 19 condemned the group because,
he said, it appears to "hold racist views." He then
called on any RNC member affiliated with the council to renounce
any ties to the council.
don't need a controversy like this. We ought to be talking about
the issues that are important to the people," said Henry
McMaster, chairman of the South Carolina state GOP.
association to this particular group is a distraction from what
the Republican Party is trying to do.
Republican Party has been falsely accused for years as being the
white man's party," McMaster said. "That's not true.
Just like it's been accused of being the party of the rich. And
that's not true either. So any time there's any sort of news or
any sort of event that would tend to prove that . . . it reinforces
so, McMaster disagreed with Nicholson's call for Witherspoon to
resign from the council, and in the process, he underscored the
dilemma facing the party.
all grown people, and there are a variety of reasons for people
joining some groups and not joining others," he said. "The
Republican Party is not the club police."