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GOP Leader Under Fire: Senator Trent Lott

December 12, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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JIM LEHRER: Kwame Holman begins our Lott coverage.

KWAME HOLMAN: Mississippi’s Trent Lott was all smiles last Thursday as he told stories and delivered jokes at a celebration honoring 100-year-old Strom Thurmond, the retiring Republican Senator from South Carolina. However, one remark Senator Lott made has exploded into questions and concerns over his racial sensitivities, and whether he is fit to serve as the new Senate Majority Leader.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for President, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. (Applause) And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.

KWAME HOLMAN: Strom Thurmond made his run for president in 1948 as a strict segregationist. A handful of media organizations picked up on Lott’s remark, prompting a series of written explanations from the Senator. On Sunday, Lott said: “This was a light-hearted celebration of the 100th birthday of legendary Senator Strom Thurmond. My comments were not an endorsement of his positions of over 50 years ago but of the man and his life.”

By Monday, a second statement: “A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embrace the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth. And I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.”

However, Lott’s written statements didn’t satisfy his critics. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus, together on Tuesday to elect new leadership, were incensed by Lott’s remarks at Senator Thurmond’s birthday party. Elijah Cummings of Maryland is the incoming chairman of the Black Caucus.

REP. ELIJAH CUMMINGS (D) Maryland: It sends a chilling message to all people, and I would… you know, if you think about post-9/11, we talked about bringing this nation together. And those are the kinds of words that tear this nation apart.

KWAME HOLMAN: At least one member of the Black Caucus suggested Lott should resign. Nancy Pelosi, the new House Minority Leader, was asked if she agreed.

REP. NANCY PELOSI: I’m not going to speak to the resignation. I understand that Senator Lott has made an apology. And he can apologize all he wants; it doesn’t remove the sentiment that escaped his mouth that day at that party. And I find it something that is unacceptable. I don’t know what the remedy is to it, but I do know what Senator Lott said — I know that it was completely inappropriate. I don’t know if any apology is adequate.

KWAME HOLMAN: Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle on Monday said he believed Lott’s comments had been misinterpreted, but yesterday asked if Lott “did not mean to endorse segregation, what did he mean?” Trent Lott apologized again yesterday, this time by telephone, on a Fox News Channel program.

SEN. TRENT LOTT: I apologize for the words, and I’m sorry that I used words that were insensitive, and it conveyed, you know, an impression that is not an accurate one. So, I think I… once again, I’m saying now that it was not intended just to say, “I’m sorry if you didn’t like it.” I… you know, I regret it.

KWAME HOLMAN: However, Lott’s troubles have been compounded by the discovery of a statement he made in 1980. As a young Congressman, Lott appeared at a campaign rally in Mississippi, again with Strom Thurmond, and said: “You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are today.” During a speech before a largely black audience in Philadelphia today, President Bush finally weighed in with his thoughts on the controversy.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. (Applause) Recent comments… recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. (Applause) He has apologized, and rightly so. Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals. (Applause) And the founding ideals of our nation, and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was — and remains today — the equal dignity and equal rights of every American. (Applause) And this is the principle that guides my administration. We will not and we must not rest until every person of every race believes in the promise of America.

KWAME HOLMAN: The president has not asked Trent Lott to resign; neither have any Republican Senators. However, very few of them have been outspoken in their support, and a number of newspaper editorials now question Lott’s ability to lead the Senate and have urged him to step down. It’s not clear when Trent Lott will speak publicly again. His office says he’s on vacation.

JIM LEHRER: Now to two political reporters who have been covering the story: Thomas Edsall of the Washington Post, and Adam Nagourney of the New York Times. For the record, Senator Lott declined our invitation to appear tonight.

Tom Edsall, what does your reporting say about the how the Republican Senators are backing Senator Lott at this point in time?

THOMAS EDSALL: Well, the Republican Senators are in the whole are just holding their own fire. They’re somewhat loyal to Lott. Where Lott’s real problems are is that the Senate staff– and that’s not an insignificant group– many of them, Senate Republican staff, are beginning to turn against him and see him as a real liability.

And secondly, another group that’s very important to him is the whole conservative opinion leader, commentator, editorial writing community from the “Wall Street Journal” to his own home town newspaper, to many from Thomas Soul. There are a lot of people who are being very critical and very sharply critical of him. And these are people right out of his own base. That’s a serious problem.

JIM LEHRER: Charles Krauthammer was one today. Weighed in on the op/ed page of your own newspaper.

THOMAS EDSALL: He did.

JIM LEHRER: A conservative there. But back to the Senators, we couldn’t get any of them to come on this program tonight, in fact, to defend Trent Lott. Are they saying some things privately that they’re not saying publicly? What is the state of play?

THOMAS EDSALL: They are saying it publicly by not coming on. They do not want to get into this mess at this point. It’s a signal, if Lott is not getting strong support, verbal, public commitments going on TV from his own people, he has a problem that he has to seriously address, and this thing may be more difficult than he has anticipated, or we in the media assessed.

JIM LEHRER: You mentioned the Senate staff, the Senate Republican staff. Why are they important in this? How are they… how is their view being reflected and being taken at this point?

THOMAS EDSALL: I missed the beginning of …

JIM LEHRER: I’m sorry. Just why is it that important? Give us a feel for why that’s important.

THOMAS EDSALL: Senator Lott is just coming in as returning to the position of Senate Majority Leader after having been out during the time when Senator Daschle and the Democrats controlled. He never was really a very popular figure. His leadership was supported, but it was not very enthusiastically supported. The White House likes him, but they don’t love him. He does not have that kind of core backing from either people who aren’t totally politically tied to him or who he has done favors that have won their hearts.

So he’s a fragile situation. Secondly, the Republican Party is on the verge– they want to build on this last election and really go forward. And the last thing in the world they want is to have to deal with issues where the Republican Party is once again being accused of being the party of racism, the segregated South.

This is not just harmful in the black community; this has already proven harmful in the Hispanic community, it hurts among suburban voters, professional voters. It just is a… it’s awful for a Republican Party that now senses a majority this far away.

JIM LEHRER: Adam Nagourney, what can you tell us about what led to President Bush’s strong statement today?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: There was a sense over the past couple of days that this was not going away. If you watched the White House over the first two days, they were restrained in their condemnation of Mr. Lott. They basically said they accepted his remarks at face value and the contrast with what the president said today was pretty startling.

I think one result, just adding to what Tom was saying, I think that one result of what the president said today is that it’s going to give some cover to Republican Senators, should they want it, to come out and be more critical of Senator McCain…

JIM LEHRER: Senator Lott.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Excuse me. Senator Lott. In fact Senator McCain being an example of what I am talking about — he was called this afternoon — Senator Lott to go out and do a news conference. So I think that could have an effect on it. I think that in a strange way, Mr. Bush’s remarks could undercut Mr. Lott’s position even more, to tell you the truth.

JIM LEHRER: Even though the president stopped short of saying that… in fact and then Ari Fleischer said, no, the president wasn’t calling for his resignation or not calling for him not to be Majority Leader, but just the fact that of his condemnation, you think, could unsettle everybody?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yeah, I mean it makes it like… if you’re a member… Tom makes a good point, these guys aren’t coming on your show or other shows, as far as I know to defend him.

But at the same time they have not been going out to criticize him because most sane human beings don’t go out and trash their boss in public; you just don’t do that.

But if you have the President of the United States doing, that it’s easy to do. So I think what happens over the next couple of days, or the next day really is going to be really interesting here.

JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with what Tom said, though, that there is not that kind of general support for Senator Lott within the Bush administration, never has been?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Well, that’s why I’m raising this… I mean, I don’t want to overanalyze or suggest maybe more intelligence there. Who knows? But if you take the premise that the president, President Bush and the people around him have never loved Trent Lott and would not be particularly upset at getting him out of there, and you take the premise that Democrats I think would ultimately like to keep Trent Lott in there, no matter what they’re saying now because he’s a good target, then maybe what the president’s doing here, which you know, puts him out in front of the issue that he wants to be out front of, re-enforces his attempt to sort of present the party as a different Republican Party than maybe we remember growing up, and then criticizes him, making it easier for other Republicans to criticize him, might have the net result of sort of making it easier for Trent Lott to go. I just suggest it out there. I’m not sure they are that smart but…

JIM LEHRER: Okay, I hear you. I take it… to take it the next step, if in fact the end result of this is Trent Lott stepping aside as Majority Leader of the United States Senate, then President Bush could correctly take credit for that having happened? Is that what you’re saying?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Yeah. And plus, he’s positioned himself on the side of the angels here. I mean to me, civil rights is one of the few issues in this country where, like, there is a clear right and there’s a clear wrong.

I mean we debate about all kinds of stuff, but I think generally that’s one thing where there’s… most people don’t think there’s two sides. It’s hard to find people now who will argue that it’s, you know, appropriate to have Jim Crowe laws or laws that discriminate against people, against blacks.

JIM LEHRER: I want to ask both of you, starting with you, Tom Edsall, as Kwame pointed out in the piece, this story had kind of a slow start. It was several days ago that Trent Lott said this. There was very little reaction from Democrats, Tom Daschle said it was okay and then the press, we didn’t cover the story very extensively at all. What happened? What caused the slowness? And then what caused it to build?

THOMAS EDSALL: I hate to claim credit for my paper, but we…

JIM LEHRER: That’s quite all right, Tom.

THOMAS EDSALL: …We ran a story a day late, but we did run a substantial story, and I… that really is what got it rolling. And it was a slow roll.

JIM LEHRER: Why? Why was it so slow? Why didn’t it catch on?

THOMAS EDSALL: I think people, including editors and reporters, are reluctant to get into these issues in an aggressive fashion. But once they do it turns out to have a lot of consequence and result. And the echo effect having — now receiving it, is pretty profound and significant.

Let me add one other thing I thought one thing that, in addition to the damage that Bush inflicted on Lott by his basically condemnation of Lott’s statement, Bush’s own forthright statement in support of equality — civil rights, really was sort of a backhanded slap.

That is just what Trent Lott and his… in his two appearances so far, has not done. He has not done that on “Larry King” and he did not do it on Fox News, making a really positive affirmative statement in the way that Bush did and that the way Bush did and it resonated with the audience there, so that there is a lot to go here. But in terms of the media, I don’t know.

JIM LEHRER: Adam Nagourney, how do you feel about how the… how do you analyze the pace of this story?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: I would say, a couple of things: First of all, I’m not going to get too much into this for obvious reasons, but I think there’s a great media story to be done here, actually, a specific story. I think that newspapers in general are reluctant to sort of carry the banner on stories when you’re sort of driving it.

We can argue about whether that’s right or not, and reporters are I think wary or I would argue should be, of gaffe or gotcha stories. I do not think this is a gaffe or gotcha story, but at first until you saw the video, you couldn’t be sure. And I think that often these stories are driven– and I think Tom’s right – I think it’s because the Post-did this on Saturday — helped drive this along– often these stories are driven by Democrats, or the opposition.

Democrats are reaching and they’re making an argument – Al Gore has for one and I think President Clinton did up in New York the other day, that Republicans are very good at sort of driving these negative stories involving Democrats. I would argue Democrats are not anywhere near as good as Republicans at this. And I think that one of the prime examples was Tom Daschle. You know, Senator Daschle’s initial response to this and if you go back and look at his initial response to this compared to what he’s saying now and compared to what most people are saying now is pretty startling.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah, Daschle said, “Well, I’ve talked to Senator Lott and I understand why he said it and let’s move on” essentially –

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Absolutely. He’s more apologizing, more apologizing for him than people in his own conference are today. I mean that says a lot, I think.

JIM LEHRER: What’s your gut tell you? This story still has some life to it, Adam?

ADAM NAGOURNEY: My gut says absolutely yes. My gut says the story is going to keep going for a little while at least because… the reason is it feels real. I mean you know, I do think a lot of times we in Washington, reporters, get hooked up on you know, silly ridiculous stories, just you know, that’s the way the world is these days.

But I think one is about real events and it’s coming when the Senate is about to, you know, choose its new Majority Leader and as Republicans are about to take control in Washington and I think it’s a legitimate story.

JIM LEHRER: Tom, do you feel it’s still got some life to it?

THOMAS EDSALL: I think it’s got more than life. I think what you’ve got here is not just these two comments that Senator Lott had to say, but there is a whole history of his actions and votes and dealings on racial issues, some of which have come to light already in the past, more of which are already coming out. “Time” Magazine has a scoop on this thing coming later that’s already out on their Web site.

JIM LEHRER: That has to do with Senator Lott’s leadership in the ’60s to keep a particular fraternity segregated, right?

THOMAS EDSALL: Yeah, his own fraternity.

JIM LEHRER: But a lot of stuff still to come?

THOMAS EDSALL: Yes.

JIM LEHRER: Well, gentlemen, thank you both very much.

ADAM NAGOURNEY: Thank you.