Joe Conason's Journal

Trent Lott's past -- and how that should affect his future.


Salon Staff
December 11, 2002 11:28PM (UTC)

What is Trent Lott?
Having averted their eyes for years, Democrats and Republicans alike are suddenly obliged to take a long, discomforting look at the Senate Republican leader. Trent Lott has left them no choice after blurting out his true feelings, in public, about the course that America has taken since 1948, when his political forebears were defeated and the emancipation of black Americans resumed. No sniping about Sen. Robert Byrd's ancient affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan, no posthumous attack on the late Albert Gore Sr., and no rhetorical resurrection of the long-departed liberal Republicans who supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act can deflect the profound decision that awaits the Senate when it returns in January.

Will the United States Senate again confer the honor and power of the majority leadership on this man?

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The celebration of Strom Thurmond's centennial, where Lott delivered his encomium to the States' Rights Party, included many affirmations that the South Carolina segregationist had undergone a deep and sincere change. Far younger than Thurmond, Lott nevertheless emerged from the same sinister milieu -- and the question that his remarks at Thurmond's birthday raised is whether he too has changed. (The Washington Post reports today that when Lott spoke at a Reagan presidential rally with Thurmond in 1980, he said almost exactly what he has "apologized" for saying last Friday -- that if the Dixiecrat had been elected president in 1948, "we wouldn't be in the mess we are today.")

Lott's political pedigree can be traced directly to the past that he insists he has repudiated, if only to save his own political hide. His political mentor was Rep. William H. Colmer, a die-hard "seg" and nominal Democrat who ran on the Dixiecrat ticket with Thurmond in 1948 (scroll down). By the time Lott ran for Congress to succeed his old boss in that district, the Dixiecrats, led by Thurmond, were defecting en masse to the Republican Party. In his first congressional race Lott joined that wave.

The old segregationist apparatus persisted in many forms, both public and subterranean. And somehow, despite his protestations of innocence, the suave politician from Pascagoula has shown up repeatedly as a supporter or associate of those poisonous political relics. His connections with the Council of Conservative Citizens, institutional heir to the Citizens Councils, were first exposed long ago; his denials were plainly false.

As Gene Lyons and I reported in "The Hunting of the President," Lott deployed his old "seg" allies in the Republican assault on Bill Clinton in 1992. Among the unreconstructed racists who joined the GOP along with Thurmond was a former Arkansas Dixiecrat known as "Justice Jim" Johnson, who had led the violent resistance to the integration of Little Rock High School in 1957. As a young activist, Clinton had fought Johnson in more than one election during the '60s. When Clinton ran for president, Johnson called upon his old comrades to help ruin him.

Johnson wanted to find a letter that Clinton had written to a Mississippi draft board during the Vietnam era, endorsing conscientious objector status for a fellow Rhodes scholar from the Magnolia State. As Justice Jim later told an interviewer, he asked Trent Lott for assistance in retrieving the document. "I was subsequently contacted by Col. Rex Armistead of Lula, Mississippi. Col. Armistead was the head of the Mississippi State Police when my friend, former Rep. John Bell Williams, was Governor of Mississippi."

John Bell Williams was the last openly racist governor of Mississippi.

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Like Lott's old boss Colmer, Williams had run for Congress on the 1948 Dixiecrat ticket in a district adjacent to Pascagoula. His former police chief Armistead rose to power during an era of official terrorism and violent repression against black citizens and civil rights advocates. Upon retiring from his strange career in law enforcement, Armistead became a private detective who specialized in political dirty tricks on behalf of Republican candidates. In 1983, he engineered a GOP scheme to smear Mississippi Democratic gubernatorial candidate Bill Allain as a homosexual. (The plot was exposed on ABC's "20/20" newsmagazine.)

Armistead never found Clinton's letter to the Mississippi draft board. But the Dixie detective later joined the payroll of Richard Mellon Scaife's "Arkansas Project," the smear campaign against the Clintons that proceeded secretly under the auspices of the American Spectator magazine.

Like his sub rosa support for the CCC, Lott's connections with Jim Johnson and Rex Armistead strongly suggest that, unlike Thurmond, he never changed at all. His statements and affiliations are not a series of momentary aberrations but a clear pattern.

George W. Bush may find that pattern acceptable, despite the damage that Lott's prominence inflicts on this country both at home and abroad. Whether the president's party and the Senate will agree remains to be seen.
[10:21 a.m. PDT, Dec. 11, 2002]

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