Joe Conason's Journal

Karl Rove leaves his fingerprints on the Bill Frist leadership campaign. Plus: As Trent Lott walks away from his post, a few defenders write in.

By Salon Staff
Published December 20, 2002 5:42PM (EST)

Karl is king
The most remarkable aspect of Trent Lott's inevitable defenestration is how meekly the once-proud Senate has surrendered to the designs of Karl Rove. Whatever marvelous qualities Sen. Bill Frist may possess, he has served one term in the Senate, and has pledged to serve no more than two. On the institutional merits, Frist's candidacy for majority leader is a joke.

That's a heavy doctor's bag the former heart surgeon is carrying, too. He was one of the authors of the shameful Eli Lilly Thimerosal amendment to the Homeland Security bill, and his fortune derives from family holdings in Columbia/HCA, the crooked healthcare company that just agreed to an $880-million settlement of fraud charges with the Justice Department.

Lack of experience and personal baggage don't matter much, however, and neither does the independence of the Senate. What matters above all in the Republican Party is that the president's political counselor gets what he wants. Nobody doubts that Rove wanted Frist. The Tennessee senator has that smooth look that goes over well on TV. He's a doctor. He's 50 years old, which is young in the Senate. And he occasionally works on medical relief missions, even while he pushes the insurance-pharmaceutical-corporate agenda. In short, he's a textbook "compassionate conservative."

This afternoon, Ari Fleischer again denied that the White House had played any role in deposing Lott. As I pointed out in the Observer this week, the press secretary has been edging away from Lott for 10 days, even while insisting that the president didn't think the Mississippian should resign his leadership. When Fleischer denies anything, there is a strong likelihood that it's true. Now we will see whether Orrin Hatch, Arlen Specter and other senators who supposedly resented White House interference in their internal affairs will line up obediently behind Frist.

We shall also see whether dumping Lott allows Republicans to escape the party's recent legacy of ethnic strategies, bigoted code words, Confederate flag-waving, and alliances with racist groups. It's true that one or two aged Democrats have questionable racial histories, but the problem for the Republicans is much broader and more central to party strategy. For Republicans and conservatives who want to rid the right of racism, saying goodbye to Trent must be the beginning, not the end.

Meanwhile, I must say goodbye to you, dear readers, if only for a little while. I won't be filing here again until January 3. Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! I'll be raising a cup of cheer to toast my readers for their support, their wonderful tips, corrections and comments -- and of course their subscriptions. Thank you.
[4 p.m. PST, Dec. 20, 2002]

Lott of letters
Now that Trent Lott has surrendered his sword to Karl Rove, it's time to look back at the hundreds of communications I've received since this uproar began.

There was the brief note from a guy who accused me of participating in "a modern-day lynching." Yeah, I was there. (So were Bill Kristol, Ari Fleischer, David Frum, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, and a few dozen others. Andrew Sullivan brought the rope.) Was this the kind of lynching that Harry Truman wanted to suppress in 1948, when ole Strom quit the Democrats in protest? And there was an equally curt message, including Old Testament references, from someone who wanted me to know that segregation is "God's law."

Several Southerners took exception to my remarks about Jefferson Davis and the Sons of Confederate Veterans. I tried to say that the SCV includes sincere nostalgists as well as extremists, and frankly I have no way of knowing whether one group outweighs the other. Certainly they're all entitled to their views and associations. And I should also say I meant no disrespect to Civil War reenactors and others who keep that aspect of the nation's heritage alive, without racial or ethnic discrimination of any kind.

But the mentality of at least one SCV activist came through in a long, feverish e-mail forwarded to me the other day from the "commander" of an SCV group.

I don't have time to do it full justice, but here's a sample:

"By defaming the Sons of Confederate Veterans, you defame me and sully my personal reputation and possibly harm my ability to make a living or be trusted by my colleagues. I am a [certified public accountant] by trade. As a Confederate descendant, honor demands satisfaction, and I would like to challenge you to a duel. However, dueling is illegal, so I challenge you to debate instead."

An accountant who lives out his fantasies in a Confederate uniform would like to challenge me to a duel because he doesn't like what I wrote -- but, oh my, that would be illegal! So this fellow, who holds the SCV rank of "Commander," hints at the prospect of legal action. A lawsuit is the modern equivalent of a duel, after all. But what would I do if the case went before a neo-Confederate GOP judge and I lost? Pay up in Confederate money, of course.

Liberal media miracle Readers in the Los Angeles metropolitan area should tune in at drive time next week to KFI Radio, 640-AM (between 3 and 7 p.m. Pacific time), to hear Johnny Wendell, a progressive host breaking the political barrier in talk radio on America's biggest station. And let the station know if you like what you hear.
[11 a.m. PST, Dec. 20, 2002]

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Salon Staff

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