Reactions to Trent Lott's fall

Jill Nelson, Todd Gitlin and others react to the Senate majority leader's resignation and the apparent ascension of Sen. Bill Frist.

By Compiled by Salon staff
Published December 21, 2002 10:42PM (EST)

Terry McAuliffe, chairman of the Democratic National Committee

Sen. Lott has made the right decision. But his resignation as majority leader should signal the beginning of the Republican Party's work on race, not the end.

There were many disgraceful incidents of minority voter intimidation in the '02 elections, particularly in the Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas and New Jersey Senate campaigns. It is disturbing that the senator who ran these races as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, Sen. Bill Frist, is now a leading candidate for Senate majority leader.

What did Sen. Frist know about fliers distributed in Louisiana's African-American communities encouraging voters to cast their ballot "on Tuesday, December 10th" -- five days after the Dec. 5 runoff? Did the NRSC direct the Louisiana Republican Party to pay African-American youth $75 to hold signs in black neighborhoods that read: "Mary, if you don't respect us, don't expect us?" Was it part of the NRSC's ground game to have paid employees of Sen. Tim Hutchinson, D-Ark., intimidate African-American voters at early-voting polling locations?

Who leads the Republican Party is ultimately a question for President Bush and the Senate Republicans. However, I would strongly encourage the president and Republican senators to insist that Sen. Frist give a full accounting of these voter intimidation incidents before the election is held for Senate majority leader.

If the Republican Party is sincere in wanting to reconcile its poor record on race, it's not enough to get rid of Trent Lott. The time has come for the Republican Party to reconcile its empty rhetoric on race with its troubling record of civil rights suppression and support for economic and social policies that are harmful to African-American families.

Sen. Frist should start this effort now with a full accounting of the voter intimidation incidents that happened on his watch.

Jill Nelson, MSNBC columnist

Trent Lott is simply the latest sacrificial lamb to American's denial of its racist and segregationist past and present. Now his cronies in the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, the House and the Bush administration, can declare the evil segregationist in their midst gone and return to business as usual.

Lott's sin wasn't that he yearned for the good old days of segregation and Jim Crow, it was that he said so in public and broke the covenant. Yet it's important not to forget that Lott has been who he is for a long time, and there was plenty of equally damning information -- both his public comments and his votes in the Senate -- in the public record long before Strom's 100th birthday party.

I would have preferred for him to remain majority leader, one who would have been under the bright light of public and media scrutiny because of his recent events. That light justly would have also illuminated not only his views and actions, but those of his colleagues, too.

His stepping down as majority leader signals the return of the cover of darkness.

Conservative columnist David Horowitz

The resignation of Trent Lott is a credit to the man that may yet rescue him from his final disgrace. It is a gesture of respect for his party and his president and for the cause they represent. Even more importantly, it opens the door of opportunity for the Republican Party to take a leadership role in shaping the American future.

In the year of the millennium, George Bush launched a presidential campaign to change the American political landscape. He reclaimed the heritage of his party as the party of Lincoln. He proclaimed that Republicans would leave no child behind; he denounced the liberal bigotry of low expectations for Americans whom Democratic policies -- most particularly destructive welfarism and racial preferences -- were consigning to permanent second-class status. By appointing minorities to 45 percent of his top administration posts (twice that of Clinton) he proved that he would make good on his words if given the chance.

Now, with the resignation of Trent Lott, the Republican congressional party has itself entered the future the president promised. With Lott's resignation, Republicans can get on to the task of pointing out the obvious (but still invisible) truth about the political battle in this country. The Democratic Party is the party of racial preferences and race-baiting; it is the party that rules America's inner cities and has done so for 50 years. Democrats control 100 percent of the city councils and school boards that shape the destinies of the poor and minorities in New York, Chicago, Detroit, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Washington, St. Louis, and every other blighted urban big city in America. Everything that is wrong with the inner cities of America that policy can affect, Democrats are responsible for. Now the decks are cleared for Republicans to begin pointing this out, to begin the task of winning the necessary hearts and minds, and eventually to lead poor people in this country who are often minorities through the portals of the American dream.

John B. Judis, senior editor of the New Republic

The big news is not Lott's resignation, but the likely elevation of Bill Frist.

If his fellow senators choose him, I don't know how well he would do holding together the factions in the party, or overcoming the threat of filibuster from Democrats, but he would bring considerable strengths to the job that Lott does not possess.

Lott came from the heart of the '64 Goldwater revolution and expressed the Republicans' opposition to civil rights. Frist comes from a border state. He is more of a centrist than Lott, and (although revelations will probably come) has a much better record on racial issues. In 1995, he defended Clinton's black nominee for surgeon general, Henry Foster, against a scurrilous campaign from Gramm, Ashcroft and the usual suspects. (Foster was from Tennessee, but the state's other Republican senator, Fred Thompson, opposed his nomination.) Frist also fought for David Satcher, Clinton's next nominee and also an African-American, against Ashcroft et al.

He is smarter and more personable than Lott, and he has Reagan's ability to take the edges off of issues. (It used to be said about Reagan that he could make extreme right-wing positions sound moderate, while Goldwater could make a moderate position sound far right.)

Frist will do very well with the press. He is capable of being interviewed without having four aides taking notes. The one big question is whether he can use his medical industry background to his advantage or whether he will contribute to the impression that the GOP is a subsidiary of PhMRA, the drug industry lobby.

Bruce Oppenheimer, political scientist at Vanderbilt University

Like the president, Frist is an Ivy League-educated professional who comes from a healthy, wealthy and wise family and fits the "country club" Republican mold. That's different than the previously Democratic, working-class background that Trent Lott and a lot of newer Southern Republicans come from.

Clearly there is a movement in the Republican Party to select someone who at least has the appearance of being more moderate that Lott, but it has the appearance of being a bigger change than it will probably be. Only on occasion does Frist break with the party line.

Todd Gitlin, professor of journalism, Columbia University

Lott's sin was to blurt out, in front of camera and microphone, his good-old-boy indulgence of those good-old-segregation years. Turned out that he'd been repeating his good-old-Strom lines for more than 20 years, but no one -- not in the major media -- had gone to the videotape to find the evidence. The Republicans now would like to take the easy purge cure. They don't deserve to get away with it. The Democrats shouldn't let up on what is, after all, not only a Republican-Confederate nostalgia-fest, but a clear and present strategy to disenfranchise minorities (with "ballot security" serving as euphemism to accomplish the end that used to require the cruder means of literacy tests). Let's see which Democratic presidential candidates take up the torch.

After a slow start, the mainstream press has had a good week playing catch-up. It mustn't let down. It did its own winking and nodding during these last decades when the Republicans perfected their Southern strategy. They need to revisit the long dishonor roll of Republicans who for years have curried favor with readers of the white-supremacist nostalgia magazine Southern Partisan.

Like Lott, John Ashcroft in 1998 turned to those pages to call the Confederate leaders "patriots," laud the pro-Confederate Missouri Civil War "government in exile," and rave about states' rights -- the old mask for racism. Bush as Texas governor flirted with Confederate nostalgia buffs and waved the Stars and Bars in South Carolina in order to crush McCain. The tactic just worked in Georgia's elections, and the Republicans won't willingly renounce it. Why should they?

The shame is that they haven't been shamed nearly enough.

Sean Wilentz, Dayton-Stockton professor of history at Princeton University and a contributing editor to the New Republic.

Notice how Karl Rove managed to help dump Trent Lott while trying hard not to alienate the Bush-GOP neo-Confederate constituency. This, I think, is the heart of the story: the Republicans' staggering hypocrisy about preserving their carefully built neo-Confederate alliance, and their unwillingness to reject their systematic pandering to white racism in the present as well as in the past.

What about Bush, Richard Hines, and the South Carolina primary? What about John Ashcroft? And what about Sen. Bill Frist, Lott's heir apparent, hand-picked by Karl Rove, as Senate majority leader?

Sen. Frist has a great deal to answer for in light of his shady performance as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee in 2002, including the well-documented and orchestrated suppression of black voting in Arkansas and Louisiana by paid Republican staff members and those whom they hired. What did Sen. Frist know about these efforts, and when did he know it? Did the NRSC order the targeting of black voters and neighborhoods for the outrageous attempts to repel voters from the polls?

Lott may have stepped down -- but there's too much dirt on the floor about Sen. Frist, and about the entire Republican establishment, to be swept under the rug.

Compiled by Salon staff

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