OF PRINCIPALITIES AND POWERS - “Man Overboard!”

(12/18/2002)

By Tony Russell

I’ve stuck my foot in my mouth so many times over the years that my wife thinks that’s how I polish my shoes. So I have a strange sympathy for Trent Lott, who, in a rare moment of unguarded honesty, spoke straight from his crooked little heart, and now finds himself a political pariah.

It’s too bad that reaction to Mr. Lott’s remarks honoring Strom Thurmond will focus on Mr. Lott himself, and ignore the whole class of Southern politicians who rode the racist bandwagon throughout their careers, jumping off only when it was clear that segregation was a losing position, and often jumping parties as well. When overt racism lost its respectability, the Republican Party built its southern strategy on covert racism, capitalizing on southern reaction against Lyndon Johnson’s Civil Rights Act. The party has succeeded, in the past three decades, in translating what was a solid Democratic bloc into a solid Republican bloc. The political abandonment of open segregation was a mass conversion unparalleled since Constantine’s vision at the Tiber. Like Constantine, they saw what it took to win.

The depth of their conversion has always been an open question. It’s hard not to think back to Jesse Helms’ campaign against Harvey Gant in North Carolina. Trailing in the final weeks, Helms didn’t hesitate to play his old race card. It worked; Helms won going away. Latent racism is an important asset, something this whole class of politicians counts on. The bubba vote knows in its heart that these men are still with them, even if they have to mouth moderate sentiments to maintain respectability. Mr. Lott simply forgot himself, speaking among friends.

My guess as to Lott’s future? I doubt he’ll become the new Majority Leader in January. The Bush team views government as a matter of manipulating public opinion about policy, and four-apologies-and-still-counting into the aftermath of Lott’s remarks, Lott looks less salvageable every day. Bush is trying to enlarge the Republican voter base by attracting suburban white women and Hispanic voters, and the last thing he needs is a reminder that the southern base of the party is still racist at its core. He and his supporters in the Senate will toss Lott overboard faster than an undersized bass when the game warden is walking down the dock.


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