Trent Lott's Second Chance

By Colbert I. King
Saturday, January 16, 1999; Page A25

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

Welcome to Washington, sometimes known as the District of Conversions. This is the place where voting records and party affiliations have been known to shift with the political winds, where the most partisan political appointees of the losing party can miraculously reinvent themselves as apolitical careerists, where even an Alabama senator who once took the eternal oath of loyalty to the Invisible Empire of the Ku Klux Klan was transformed into the U.S. Supreme Court's greatest civil libertarian.

Comes now conservative Mississippi senator and Republican majority leader Trent Lott who, because he stiff-armed his rabid House GOP counterparts on their terms for President Clinton's impeachment trial and now bears the persona of sweet bipartisan reasonableness, is being likened to Saint Paul (who experienced a conversion of his own en route to Damascus).

To which I must respectfully shout: "Whoa!"

This is the same Trent Lott who has maintained relations with leaders of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the pro-white, anti-everybody-else group spawned by major figures of the segregationist White Citizens Councils and the John Birch Society. The same Trent Lott who not only allowed the prestige of his office to legitimize the council – until he got caught – but whose affiliation with segregationists includes devoted service as administrative assistant to an arch civil rights foe and former Mississippi congressman, the late William Colmer. (Lott then was a Democrat, the winds having not yet blown).

Leader Lott, heralded today as an even-handed pragmatist and everybody's pal, is the same ardent defender of Confederate symbols and protector of southern "heritage and traditions" who reportedly opposed civil rights bills and argued against making Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday a holiday. Yes, he's a banner waver for the Sons of Confederate Veterans and the big-time Republican who proclaimed his party to be the party of Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederate States of America.

"Even today there are people who believe that they can fly the Confederate flag as a tribute to gallantry untainted by the white supremacy for which it stood," wrote Henry Mayer in the preface of his William Lloyd Garrison biography, "All On Fire." "They are deceiving themselves and playing false with history." Said Mayer: "It seems to me indisputable that the defense of slavery was the fundament of the Confederacy, and to expunge slavery from the history of the Civil War is to produce 'Hamlet' without the Prince."

But this is not about Lott's love of the Confederacy. The question simply is where the Senate's leader stands on the Council of Conservative Citizens.

Since the story broke about Lott's ties to the council, the public has been told repeatedly that Lott has renounced his association with the group. In fact, Lott originally claimed to have "no firsthand knowledge of the group's views" and doesn't think of himself as a member.

Enter "Uncle Arnie," a k a Arnie Watson, former Mississippi state senator, member of the council's executive board and Lott's "favorite uncle," according to the New York Times. Said Uncle Arnie to that paper, "Trent is an honorary member" of the council, adding, "he's spoken at meetings." Found out, Lott said in a statement this week, "I have made my condemnation of the white supremacist and racist view of this group, or any group, clear. Any use of my name to publicize their view is not only unauthorized – it's wrong."

In truth, the challenge to the Council of Conservative Citizens has been spearheaded by human rights groups, enterprising journalists and a few columnists. Congressional leaders, especially Republican southerners such as Lott, have come under little pressure to repudiate the repugnant council. But if this GOP-led Congress is really opposed to racism and antisemitism, it has an obligation to speak out whenever those evils rear their ugly heads. Besides, shouldn't Lott and his Capitol Hill colleagues hold white racists to the same standard as black bigots?

To recall: When Khalid Abdul Muhammad, then a top lieutenant in the Nation of Islam, let fly with a repulsive and hate-mongering two-hour diatribe against Jews, Catholics, gays and African Americans at Kean College of New Jersey in November 1993, Congress hit back hard.

It mattered not that Khalid Muhammad's vile and vicious remarks had been repudiated by leaders of the African American community and the Congressional Black Caucus after the Anti-Defamation League brought the speech to light. Neither did it matter that Congress usually doesn't officially evaluate and censure individual racist rantings or take up matters so far from the works of government. Rep. Henry Hyde, then floor manager of the debate on a House resolution condemning Khalid Muhammad's remarks, said: "Certainly actual speech ought to be protected, and it is protected. However, we do not have to turn the other cheek and become accessories by silence, by inaction, ratify through inaction."

That sentiment echoed the views of Republican Sens. Jack Danforth and James Jeffords, who earlier cosponsored a Senate resolution condemning Khalid Muhammad's speech. It was adopted 97-0. Following suit, the House voted out its resolution 361 to 34, with 29 members voting present.

Why leave out the council? It promotes friction between people of different races and religions. It stirs hatred and anger. Its search for scapegoats separates our country. The council's racial chauvinism puts it in a league with that other rabid color-line advocate, Khalid Muhammad.

My childhood pastor used to preach that sometimes a stumbling block is a stepping stone in disguise. The council is Lott's chance to show the nation where he stands – to show that he doesn't try to run with the rabbits and bay with the hounds.

Instead of issuing statements, Lott should resort to actions that speak louder. A Senate resolution censuring the council is the answer. The measure should not seek to interfere with the group's legal right to express its repulsive and offensive views. But the resolution should affirm that the race-baiting and divisiveness the council peddles do not enjoy an aura of respectability in Congress and are a moral affront to the country.

Surely Lott's Republican colleagues such as Jeffords, not to mention his party's two most prominent African Americans – J. C. Watts and Colin Powell – would want their party to show its abhorrence of the council through a censure resolution. House and Senate Democrats should sign on, too, thus making it a universal condemnation.

Meanwhile, let's not bathe Lott in public goodwill. His association with the council is a problem, and it's one of his own making. It was Lott, after all, who lent council leaders the respectability they craved. He should now take it back.

So, Washington, hold your applause. Trent Lott's rebirth is still a ways off.

The writer is a member of the editorial page staff.