Joe Conason's Journal

Note to Hannity, Limbaugh and ditto-heads: Byrd is not Lott. Plus: Where are the Senate Democrats?

By Salon Staff
Published December 13, 2002 4:56PM (EST)

Yesterday's Democrats, today's Republicans
Now I know why the most devoted wing-nuts call themselves "ditto-heads." Over the past few days, a fair amount of e-mail has arrived from people who simply repeat the partisan arguments voiced by Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh in defense of Trent Lott: Democratic Sen. Robert Byrd once uttered the phrase "white niggers," and once belonged to the Ku Klux Klan. Democratic Sens. Sam Ervin and Albert Gore Sr., both deceased, cast votes against civil rights 30 years ago or so. And Jesse Jackson said "Hymietown."

And then there is the contingent that persistently traces every American ill back to Bill Clinton's libido:

"Did we learn the character of Bill Clinton when he lied and obstructed justice? Also of KKK Byrd who used the N word, and all of the other democrats who were against segregation [sic]. Let see you write a story about them and their character."

Fine, let's discuss Byrd and "all of the other Democrats" who once advocated segregation, as the writer above means to suggest. Those "other Democrats" who once supported segregation can be described briefly as either long dead or -- like Trent Lott, Strom Thurmond, Jesse Helms, "Justice Jim" Johnson of Arkansas, and all of their ideological kin -- as Republicans in good standing.

A convenient diversion from that fact, for Republican voices such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, is to call attention to Senator Byrd's KKK membership. They both mention it frequently, as if he had just quit the Klan last week. (The Wall Street Journal editorial page deems it necessary to bring this up again today as well, in an editorial demanding that Lott quit for the sake of the conservative agenda.) They speak as if they have no idea when Byrd was in the Klan or when he left, so let me clue them in. As a young man, Byrd was a Klan member briefly during the 1940s. He quit more than a decade before his first election to the Senate in 1958. He is now 84 years old. In 1993, CNN anchor Bernard Shaw asked Byrd to name his worst mistake. "That's easy," he replied. "The greatest mistake I ever made was joining the Ku Klux Klan. And I've said that many times. But one cannot erase what he has done. He can only change his ways and his thoughts. That was an albatross around my neck that I will always wear."

Byrd's "white nigger" remark last year was at once repugnant and odd. As Lott's dwindling band of defenders would say, consider the context: "My own mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practiced that. There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time, you want to use that word. But we've all -- we all -- we just need to work together to make our country a better country." Only Byrd knows what he meant by that offensive and internally contradictory statement. The NAACP, among others, criticized him severely for it, and he immediately apologized.

The sort of Democrat he once exemplified -- the seg New Dealer -- no longer exists. In 1964, he filibustered the 1964 Civil Rights Act. His voting record on civil rights issues for about the past 30 years has been moderate, not particularly liberal, but far from racist. The Democratic caucus removed him from the Senate leadership long ago.

This Republican leader is obviously a different case. The question that Lott hasn't been able to answer satisfactorily, except by lying and changing the subject, is why he has continued to associate with bigots and echo their views. He has no answer.

Meanwhile, the president finally spoke up. What he said was fine, but his decision to criticize Lott during his speech on "faith-based" funding sounded like an opportunistic pander to black church officials. I wonder whether those who cheered Bush understand that his policy of providing federal funds to religious organizations that practice discrimination could have some strange results. Bob Jones University, despite its former ban on interracial dating, might have qualified for a check from the U.S. Treasury under these rules, since its racism was a religious imperative. And if discrimination is acceptable as an article of faith, then what would stop those racist and neo-Nazi "churches" from setting up their own "faith-based" charities?

Kerry and Gore lead
Some Republicans and conservatives are belatedly recognizing that Lott's remarks symbolize an illness they should strive to cure. They will have to remove him from leadership first. Other Republicans across the party's political spectrum are failing this test of character, including Arlen Specter, Mitch McConnell, Bill Frist and Tom DeLay. Jesse Helms and Pat Buchanan have actually praised Lott.

As for the Senate Democrats, only John Kerry and Russ Feingold have called on Lott to resign his leadership. In light of their colleagues' seemingly incurable flaccidity, Kerry deserves more credit than I suggested yesterday. Even Feingold, regarded as one of the Senate's most principled and courageous members, followed the Massachusetts Democrat. Kerry and Al Gore are taking over the leadership of their party while others blandly default.

After being roundly blasted for excusing Lott, Tom Daschle has tried to sound tougher, and of course failed. Joseph Lieberman and Ted Kennedy made stronger statements but flinched from demanding that Lott step down. Hillary Clinton flinched too, and her statement was pretty lame. Far too few of the Senate Democrats have made themselves heard at all. It's pitiful to watch these Democrats articulate a weaker stance than Bill Bennett and Bill Kristol. They had better take a few minutes to review Lott's full record, available here and elsewhere, and then ask themselves how they will explain this sorry abdication to the decent Americans who have always supported them.

Yes, it's time for all these brave politicians to ante up, as the black soldier put it to Colonel Shaw in "Glory." If Lott doesn't quit his leadership before January, the first order of business when the Senate reconvenes should be censure. Anyone with an e-mail account can make that point here, or suggest to Lott that he save everybody further trouble here.

Funniest Lott quote so far
"I was 7 years old when Strom first ran for president. I don't really remember anything about the campaign." -- Wednesday, Dec. 11 on
[8:49 a.m. PST, Dec. 13, 2002]

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Salon Staff

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