'Washington's Other Scandal is Far More Disgusting'

By Leonard Pitts
Columnist, Miami Herald
Bergen Record, Sunday, January 24, 1999
© Copyright Bergen Record Corporation

THE house has been burning for more than a month now. Last week, the chairman of the Republican National Committee finally smelled the smoke and yelled, "Fire!"

After a month of a controversy, Jim Nicholson issued a call for party members to resign from the Mississippi-based Council of Conservative Citizens.

This is the latest chapter in Washington's "other" scandal, a tale that, from where I sit, says worse things about more people than Bill Clinton's misadventure ever could. Though its leadership would beg to differ, the council is a hate group -- hates black folks, hates Jews, hates integration, hates pretty much everybody and everything that's not of white, European extraction.

But this isn't just any old bunch of bigots. Rather, it's one that claims among its members, associates, and friends a large cast of state and federal elected officials from the South. Some are said to be conservative Democrats, but the majority are Republicans, including such prominent names as North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, Mississippi Gov. Kirk Fordice, Georgia Rep. Robert Barr, and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott.

The last two men, in particular, have been busy backpedaling since last month, when their ties to the group became known. Both said they had no idea of the council's rather extreme views until, golly gosh, just now.

This, despite the fact that Barr spoke to its national meeting in Charleston last year and sat through a panel discussion that explicitly explained the group's racial views. Lott, meanwhile, has had a 10-year relationship with the council -- its newsletter publishes a column he writes and he's spoken before its gatherings.

Seven years ago, in Greenwood, Miss., he reportedly offered lavish praise for the council: "The people in this room," he said, "stand for the right principles and the right philosophy."

Understandably, leaders of the council have scoffed at Barr and Lott's professions of ignorance. Not that all politicians affiliated with the group have been scurrying like roaches do when the lights come on.

South Carolina state legislator Charles Sharpe, for one, enthusiastically endorses the group. "They think like I do," says Sharpe. "Particularly on the issue of marriage between whites and non-whites. They're not supposed to mix. Cows and horses don't mix."

That's about typical of the opinions -- not to mention the cognitive ability -- one finds on a sojourn to the council's Web site. You won't read the n-word there, won't encounter the bare-knuckle bigotry of, say, Birmingham in '63. Theirs is a more sophisticated hate, a venom couched in reasonable tones and medium-warm rhetoric.

But as a man told me once, even if you dress a hog in formal wear, it's still a hog. So it isn't long before you realize what the council is about.

Maybe realization comes from the whiny tone of its writings, its embrace of the current vogue toward redefining whites as victims.

Maybe it comes from the descriptions of Martin Luther King Jr. in terms ordinarily reserved for serial rapists and child molesters.

Maybe it comes when council writers characterize interracial marriage as "genocide" against whites and the children of such unions as "a slimy brown glop."

Maybe it comes when a council official advocates sending all non-Europeans back to their ancestral homes.

However it comes, it comes. And when it does, you must wonder, if you're black, Hispanic, Indian, Jewish, Asian, or, indeed, just American, what to make of elected officials who thought nothing of consorting with people like this. I mean, under the most charitable interpretation, Trent Lott looks like a gullible fool. Under the least charitable, he's a smarmy bigot. Neither makes me feel particularly mollified; both make me wonder if this is what conservatism inevitably reduces to.

Yes, I know it's an unfair question. But I also know that I keep hearing all this sweet talk about "compassionate conservatism" and a "big tent" with room enough for all, only to see the talk repeatedly undercut. Their behavior reinforces the perception that conservatives are, at the very best, uncaring and obtuse about people who are anything other than Christian and white. Makes me wonder if these folks mean a thing they say.

Last week, the head of the GOP called on some of his members to quit a hate group. What's it tell you about them that he even had to ask?