Lott Haunted by Connections with Conservative Citizens Group

By Charles Pope, CQ staff writer
February 2, 1999, 11:52AM. EST

The last thing Trent Lott needs is another controversy with staying power.

But 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.

The 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."

It is, 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."

Baum 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.

It is 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.

Office Visit, Photo

"Lott 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."

Still, 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 leaders.

Czwartacki dismisses the photo as a routine perk bestowed on constituents who visit Lott's office.

That 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.

"Is there a law against right-wingers going to talk to their congressman?" Baum asks. "We have nothing to hide."

No matter 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.

"In 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 beliefs.

"He 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."

Lott 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.

Barr said he agreed to speak only because he was misled by the group's portrayal of itself as more mainstream than it really was.

"If 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 speak."

Sen. 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.

'Southern Cultural Issues'

Baum 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.

It opposes 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.

For 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.

Soon after, news reports of Lott's connection with the group began appearing.

Lott's 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.

At every step, time after time, he must recount Lott's involvement with the group as well as his own doubts about what Lott knew.

"Does 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.

"I 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.

Family History, Geography

Analysts 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 would meet.

With 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 Party.

"The fundamental question is, how do you respond to them?" Prospere said.

Other politicians have turned down invitations to speak once they learned the council's positions.

"As 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."

Baum disputes such characterizations.

"We 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."

They might as well be, given the frosty treatment in recent days.

GOP 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.

Others echoed Nicholson.

"We 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.

"The association to this particular group is a distraction from what the Republican Party is trying to do.

"The 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 misconceptions."

Even 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.

"We're 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."