Behind all the talk of patriotism and duty, the Republican obsession with ousting President Clinton from the White House has long carried a distinct odor of vengeance, not only for the president's political success but for the lingering wound of Richard Nixon's resignation in disgrace a quarter century ago. Now, with the delivery to the Senate of articles of impeachment -- penned on traditional parchment paper -- the task of avenging old grievances falls to Trent Lott of Mississippi, the Senate Majority Leader.
While Lott himself was first elected to Congress in the Nixon landslide of 1972, the revenge he now seeks may echo the regional divisions of a century ago, dating to the last impeachment trial of an American president -- when Andrew Johnson, defender of the white South against black Reconstruction, was impeached by radical Republicans and escaped conviction by a single vote. And although the Senate chief likes to style himself as a man of the New South, he maintains close ties to white supremacist and neo-Confederate organizations such as the Council of Conservative Citizens, the Southern Partisan magazine and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. For those who share his nostalgia for the antebellum period and the pre-civil rights era, Clinton symbolizes all that has gone wrong in America since the Civil War.
Exposure of the neo-Confederate influence among Republicans on Capitol Hill began with news stories about Bob Barr, the impeachment advocate from Cobb County, Ga., who spoke at a meeting of the Council of Conservative Citizens earlier this year. Barr denied endorsing the CCC, a direct organizational descendant of the White Citizens Councils set up across the South to resist integration during the 1950s; and the CCC leadership likewise denied that it shares the racist ideology of its predecessor. But to anyone who has given even cursory attention to the CCC's publications, that denial rings false -- and if anything, Lott's culpability is even greater than Barr's.
As Thomas Edsall reported in the Washington Post last week, Lott contributes a regular column to Citizen Informer, the CCC's newspaper, and he has posed for pictures with the group's leaders on more than one occasion. The most recent photo, published in 1997, was taken in the senator's Washington office, where he smiled broadly while standing next to the CCC's national leaders, including William D. Lord Jr. According to Edsall, Lord was formerly a "regional organizer" for the White Citizens Councils.
The CCC's affection for Lott is understandable, because the senator subscribes to the same dubious brand of Republicanism as its leaders do. Interviewed in 1984 by the Southern Partisan, a leading neo-Confederate organ, Lott explained why he believes that "the spirit of [Confederate President] Jefferson Davis lives in the 1984 Republican platform," and went on to deplore a national holiday devoted to the memory of Martin Luther King Jr.
Not that any of this should be terribly shocking to anyone familiar with Lott's career. After immersing himself in campus politics at the University of Mississippi during the deadly riots that greeted its first black student, James Meredith, in the early '60s, Lott went to law school and then became administrative assistant to Rep. William Colmer, a fanatical segregationist Democrat. When Colmer retired, Lott switched parties and won his seat running with the Nixon-Agnew ticket in 1972. In his spare time, the former Ole Miss cheerleader joined the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a bastion of Southern reaction that features Lott in its promotional video.
No doubt Lott has assumed that the Council of Conservative Citizens sounds sufficiently innocuous to save him any embarrassment. And he isn't alone in supporting the CCC -- the group's November national meeting in Jackson, Miss., was addressed by Gov. Kirk Fordice. (Indeed, CCC gatherings regularly enjoy the patronage of Republican candidates.) After all, what's wrong with being "conservative"?
But a review of the CCC Web site shows that it is a front not only for old-fashioned Southern racism but for modern neo-fascism as well. The leader of the CCC's Washington, D.C., chapter is Mark Cerr, an immigrant from the United Kingdom who was active there in the neo-fascist National Front and its successor, the British National Party, and whose real name is Mark Cotterill. The top link on the CCC site is to Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front, the leading fascist party in France. Other links lead to openly racist and fascist sites -- one of which leads in turn to the National Vanguard, perhaps the most bloodthirsty neo-Nazi organization now active in the United States. (Its leader, William Pierce, wrote "The Turner Diaries," a notorious work of fiction that looks forward to an American Holocaust, with Jews swinging from lampposts and blacks slaughtered in the streets.)
What ought to be even more disturbing to Republicans is the CCC's attitude toward Abraham Lincoln, the supposed patron saint of the Grand Old Party. Page after page on its Web site disparages the Civil War president in the most disgusting terms, calling him "a tyrant, surely the most evil American in history." Lincoln was "ugly," "dirty," "grotesque" and a homosexual, too. (Aside from blacks and Mexicans, the CCC seems most hostile to gays and lesbians.) The only "morally defensible position" ever taken by Honest Abe, according to the CCC's writers, was his tepid support for returning freed slaves to Africa.
Naturally, the CCC despises Clinton. In one essay by a writer named Millard, the president is described as an "Oreo turned inside out," ironically agreeing with author Toni Morrison's assertion in the New Yorker that he may be "America's first black liberal President."
In fact, racial animus has motivated some of the most active and angry Clinton-bashers from the beginning of his presidency. Among the most notable is "Justice Jim" Johnson, a former judge who made his mark in Arkansas as a leader of the White Citizens Council in the '50s. Johnson played a cameo role in history when he stirred the violent mob outside Little Rock's Central High School during the integration crisis that forced President Eisenhower to dispatch federal troops. Clinton entered Arkansas politics in 1966 as an opponent of Johnson's unsuccessful campaign for governor -- an affront the unrepentant segregationist never forgot. Johnson's more recent credits include his appearance in the discredited "Clinton Chronicles" videos marketed by Rev. Jerry Falwell, which accuse the president of complicity in drug smuggling and murder.
To these die-hards of the extreme right, impeachment is vindication, and they don't care whether the Republican Party is ruined in the process. But if Trent Lott and Bob Barr want to wax indignant over the president's sins, they ought to take better care of their own moral hygiene. Stanley Crouch, the author and columnist for the New York Daily News, asked pertinently the other day whether "Republicans will be constantly asked from now on about these men and their association with unreconstructed Southern racists the same way that black politicians are always asked about Louis Farrakhan."
Don't hold your breath, Stanley; most American media remain far too invested in deposing Clinton to ask hard questions about his adversaries. The answers might be just a little too disturbing.