Joe Conason’s Journal

The Senate majority leader is nostalgic for segregation and no one seems to care -- including the New York Times, NPR and the Democratic Party.

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A national disgrace
It’s strange and disturbing when Andrew Sullivan is angrier about Trent Lott’s “unreconstructed” racism than the editors of the New York Times, the Washington Post, National Public Radio and the rest of the so-called liberal media establishment. John Kerry’s haircut and Howell Raines’ obsession with a golf club are topics of giggling comment in every TV studio — but the incoming Senate majority leader’s public expression of nostalgia for the era of Jim Crow and lynching passes virtually without comment. If only Drudge had given the Lott story bigger play, maybe Judy Woodruff and the Times editorial board would consider it important.

As a frequent NPR listener, I was particularly disappointed by the network’s failure to cover the Lott story. Sunday’s “Weekend Edition,” the morning news broadcast, carried an innocuous quote from Lott on his colleague’s 100th birthday: “Somebody once said, and I’m not quite sure where I got this, but I heard it, and I loved it, and it applies to Strom Thurmond: ‘Youth is a gift of nature. Age is a work of art.’ This, ladies and gentlemen, is a work of art.” It’s hard to see why such sentimental pap deserved a second of airtime when Lott had just endorsed the racism of 1948 as a solution to America’s “problems” that same day. But despite the high quality of NPR’s news coverage, its producers and hosts rarely stray from the Beltway consensus.

The complete silence of the New York Times is even more appalling. Howell Raines promotes himself as a progressive Southerner. He worries about discrimination against women at the Augusta golf club. So why hasn’t his newspaper printed a word about Lott’s remarks? The Times hasn’t even reported what Lott said, let alone commented on his comments.

The attitude that ignores or downplays Lott’s remarks is what used to be called “institutional racism,” my fellow Americans.

Sullivan commendably demands that Lott be ousted by his fellow Republicans and scolded by the compassionate-in-chief. I hope he won’t be too disappointed when that doesn’t happen. It doesn’t bother Bob Novak or Bill Safire, so why should this president care? Some young conservatives have been more outspoken, but they seem more embarrassed than truly outraged. (Tucker Carlson uttered the most fatuous response on “Crossfire,” when he told Carville: “I must say, James, as you know, segregation was created and maintained by Democrats, by your heroes in your state.” He said that Carville ought to feel “guilty” about growing up in segregated Louisiana, a stupid, sophomoric thing to say to a Southerner who has devoted his life to fighting discrimination.)

Well, they all know the truth about Trent Lott. They just wish he would keep his mouth shut. In fact, this doesn’t surprise anyone familiar with Lott’s views and background, except that he normally obliges us by concealing his bigotry. He prefers to be regarded as a sleazy hustler, and who can blame him? That’s by far the more attractive side of his character.

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On the issue of overt racism, Lott is a two-time loser. In late 1998, Salon and other publications exposed the Mississippi Republican’s close political and familial ties with the Council of Conservative Citizens. Guess who is featured on the current cover of Citizens Informer, the racist group’s publication? The CCC leaders have passed a resolution commending Lott for his imbecilic call to post troops around the nation’s borders (uttered on the O’Reilly show, of course). The last time around, Lott’s spokesman gave a desultory and probably dishonest denial of the senator’s links to this unsavory group — as if he had no idea what they stand for. Now we know that he knew, and that he agreed, and that he still holds to the Dixiecrat platform of 1948. (A convenient link to one of the “colorful” Thurmond’s presidential campaign speeches is provided by NPR here.) The congressman who brought the former Ole Miss cheerleader to Washington, Dixiecrat William Colmer, was listed on the 1948 ballot with Thurmond.

No appropriate response to Lott’s outrage will be coming from Republican leaders who exploit the Confederate flag, from the president and his political guru down to the lowliest local officeholders in Georgia and South Carolina. Nixon’s Southern strategy lives on. But where are the Democrats, aside from Jesse Jackson? When will America hear that this is unacceptable from one of those ambitious Democrats trying to figure out who they are and what their party is? Their shameful silence is only highlighted by the fact that black voters prevented another Democratic humiliation on Saturday, when they turned out to save Mary Landrieu in Louisiana. This is a moment for aggressive action.

But Lott’s conduct is a moral offense as well as a political issue. Which Democrat believes in the party’s professed principles of equality? Which Democrat has an iota of the courage demonstrated by Harry Truman and Hubert Humphrey in 1948? Which Democrat will be the first to demand an apology from Trent Lott on the floor of the Senate — and if he declines, as he will, which Democrat will dare to propose a resolution of censure?

That’s the Democrat who should be running for president. The others should hide their faces because they’re cowards.
[9:21 a.m. PST, Dec. 9, 2002]

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