Trent Lott's Dilemma

By Richard Cohen, Washington Post
Friday, April 9, 1999

God bless Julian Bond. Like some latter-day Diogenes, he goes around Washington seeking the contemporary version of an honest man -- a politician who is not a hypocrite. All he wants, he says, is for Congress to condemn the racist Council of Conservative Citizens with the same alacrity it did that antisemite and all-around hater Khalid Muhammad. So far, most members of Congress have ducked the lamplight.

I am not surprised. Bond is a man of considerable moral strength, but his crusade is fueled by a dogged naivete. He is asking Congress to do the right thing for no other reason than it is the right thing -- a somewhat unpersuasive argument in Washington.

The fact remains that the C of CC is a political force. I deduce that not from any polls or from calling around but simply from the reluctance of Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) to denounce it. He has been asked to do so by Reps. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) and Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.) as well as Bond.

Lott's name was not picked out of a hat. The majority leader has spoken to the group's national board and been pictured with its leaders. He explained that he (1) didn't quite understand what the group stood for, (2) doesn't agree with it at all and (3) now wants nothing more to do with it.

Still, the proposed resolution is going nowhere. Lott would prefer a generic one that condemns all sorts of hate groups wherever they may be -- including, one would surmise, the Hutu and Serbian paramilitaries. As far as is known, Lott has spoken to neither of them.

Wexler, Bond and others note that the condemnation of Muhammad suggests a certain amount of hypocrisy. "So I guess what it comes down to is when it's a black person who is racist it's all right for Congress to condemn him, but when it's a white group, Congress does nothing," Wexler told The Post's Kevin Merida.

Well, not exactly. The example of Muhammad is a red herring. He is so loathsome and so marginal that it was easy to condemn him. But Louis Farrakhan is a different matter. The Nation of Islam is no less racist than the C of CC -- just as obsessed with racial purity and supposedly innate racial differences -- and antisemitic to boot. Farrakhan has spoken of whites and Jews in ways that evidence a raw, visceral bigotry. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the C of CC's implacable adversary, knows what the two organizations have in common. It has labeled them both hate groups.

And yet Farrakhan has never been condemned by Congress or by some important black leaders. Bond has spoken out, but he, as I said at the outset, is a special fellow. Jesse Jackson, on the other hand, spoke to the Farrakhan-inspired Million Man March. Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) was also there. So were scores of other black leaders. How can they expect a condemnation of the C of CC when, to suit their own purposes, they make an exception for Farrakhan? What is the moral principle here -- white racism is wrong, but black racism is, well, understandable, forgivable and beside the point?

It's hard to draw any other conclusion. It can't be that most members of Congress believe that Jewish doctors purposely spread AIDS or that Jews played a disproportionate role in the slave trade. These are the rantings of a bigot. No member of Congress could concur.

Yet their silence, their sagacious prudence, is no different from Lott's and that of others in the Senate when it comes to the C of CC. They have the guts to condemn only bigots who don't amount to much -- who can't hurt them at the polls. But let a group get a bit of a following, let it gussy up its racist message with goop about southern tradition and the ol' stars and bars and suddenly it gets pretty hard to condemn. You can almost hear the unanimous word of caution: Hey, some good people are in those organizations.

Republicans sense an effort to embarrass Lott, but that's because they know little about Julian Bond. He is simply an eloquent hater of hate itself -- without regard to race, national origin or political clout. The resolution he seeks will fail, but he serves a useful purpose. He throws a light on hypocrisy. In Washington, it takes a broad beam indeed.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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