Joe Conason's Journal

Lott's involvement with the neo-Confederate movement, racists and extreme rightists goes way back.

By Salon Staff
Published December 12, 2002 8:20PM (EST)

What Trent Lott is, cont'd
Trent Lott's protestations of innocence, as poured into the sympathetic ear of Sean Hannity, hold up poorly when tested by the public record. He and his spokesman are now misleading the press and the public daily about his "intentions," in an effort to save his position.

Yesterday, I explored his cooperation with the old segs of Mississippi and Arkansas. But there is much more to indicate that he spoke from the heart at Strom Thurmond's birthday celebration last week. Today's Memphis Commercial-Appeal carries a comprehensive Scripps-Howard story examining Lott's history as an enemy of civil rights and a legislative instrument of segregation. It makes a lie of his plea that he holds no brief for the "discarded policies of the past."

But his policy record is only part of the story. The Senate leader of the party of Lincoln is also deeply involved in the neo-Confederate movement, a motley collection of nostalgists, racists and extreme rightists. This is reflected in Lott's longtime support of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a neo-Confederate outfit that grew from the white Citizens Councils, but he is also a friend and backer of the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a source of increasingly virulent pro-Confederate, radical right propaganda. (These people hate Lincoln. Many of them uphold the Confederate view of the Civil War and of slavery as a God-given institution. It is remarkable that a modern Republican leader would associate with them in any way.)

Rather than reconcile himself and his state to Lincoln's victory in the Civil War, Lott has spent much of his public career seeking to burnish the reputation of Confederate president Jefferson Davis. He has urged the posthumous restoration of Davis' citizenship and proclaimed that the Republican platform reflects Davis' ideas. In May 1998, Lott spoke at the dedication of the Jefferson Davis "Presidential Library" at Beauvoir, the former Davis estate in Biloxi, Miss. His remarks were reproduced in a Sons of Confederate Veterans newsletter, with an introductory note by one of the chapter officers. "If there was any doubt [whether] the Senate Majority leader's heart is in our cause, this speech should answer all doubts." (For a deeper understanding of what is meant by the SCV "cause," look here and here. Lott told the assembled crowd, which included then-Gov. Kirk Fordice, who allocated more than $3 million in state funding to the Davis library, that the Confederate leader had been the guiding light of his political life. "Sometimes I feel closer to Jefferson Davis than any other man in America," he said. Perhaps he aspires to achieve the status he ascribed to Davis, as "the Congress's leading intellect and voice of Southern nationalism."

Twice, Lott seemed to endorse the Confederate interpretation of the nation's founding document, saying of Davis: "Most of all, he was a defender of the Constitution. He rightly understood that that document was created to restrain government, not constrain the people." Do these remarks indicate that when Trent Lott takes an oath to uphold the Constitution, he is swearing fealty to the Jefferson Davis version?

In that same speech, which took place as the nation's capital mulled Clinton's impeachment over the Lewinsky affair, Lott tried to suggest that Davis was somehow relevant again: "Once more the halls of Congress ring with warnings against the coercion of power in official Washington."

Two months earlier, as Thomas Edsall reported in the Washington Post, Lott had hosted a lavish reception for Southern Republicans at Beauvoir, where the Lewinsky scandal was the main topic of conversation.

Among the priceless vignettes from that curious event reported by Edsall is the image of J.C. Watts Jr., in those days the great black hope of the GOP, running around a shrine to the Confederacy denouncing Clinton, while toting along with him "pamphlets and stick-on buttons ... promoting a [presidential] ticket led by Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott." Maybe Watts expected to run as Lott's vice president. That would have been quite a shock to the CCC and the SCV.

A refreshing aspect of this sorry situation is the division of the right into camps for and against Lott. There are conservatives, including black conservatives like Watts, who make degrading excuses for the Republican leader. And there are principled black conservatives, such as my friend Robert George, who won't countenance any excuses. For that matter, there are many conservatives who have finally decided to break with their longtime seg comrades. Good for them. Dan Kennedy provides notes for a Republican honor roll.

Oh, before I forget: The New York Times editorial board finally got around to dealing with Lott. And Sen. John Kerry, who must be considered a serious contender for the Democratic nomination, issued a well-crafted and appropriately nonpartisan statement yesterday evening that called for Lott's removal from leadership. Too bad Kerry often takes so long to get where he should be -- and that he tends to explain too much before and after he gets there.

Meanwhile, the White House has proved the accuracy of John DiIulio's disavowed remarks in Esquire. Today we're hearing about "compassionate conservatism" again. Could that conceivably be Karl Rove's way of drawing attention away from Trent Lott?
[12:19 p.m. PST, Dec. 12, 2002]

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