TOPICS > Politics

Lott Under Fire

December 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: So how is all this playing among African Americans? We get a sampling of conservative and liberal opinion from Ward Connerly, president of the American Civil Rights Institute; Democratic Congressman Chaka Fattah of Pennsylvania; Peter Kirsanow, a newly seated Republican member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights; and Emma Coleman Jordan, a professor of law at Georgetown University. Her newest book, “Blood at the Root: Lynching, Divided Memory, and Modern racial Discourse,” will be published next year. Ward Connerly, Lott… Trent Lott seemed to signal significant changes of heart on policy issues last night. What was your take on that?

WARD CONNERLY: Well, I was not impressed by his performance last night. I felt that he did make some significant changes and it reveals to me how severely wounded he is. The positions I would hope that he has taken over the years about matters relating to race were based on principle. And if he is now changing based on strategic reasons, that disappoints me very much.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Fattah, did he seem credible to you in his remarks last night.

REP. CHAKA FATTAH: There was nothing credible in what he said last night. The best I can guess is that he is just trying to say whatever he thinks could help his cause. This is really a matter that Republicans are going to have to resolve in the Senate because they are the only ones that are going to determine whether Trent Lott is their leader, and I think that it says a lot that he’s their leader today given his record and it will say even more if he’s their leader after January 6.

GWEN IFILL: Peter Kirsanow you were recently seated on the Civil Rights Commission after a bit of tug of war among members of that commission who objected to some of your views. As a Republican on the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights, do you think that Trent Lott’s change of heart — particularly what he had to say last night — is satisfactory?

PETER KIRSANOW: No, I don’t think so. The apologies have been awkward at best, ineffective and quite frankly unseemly. He’s been going around on a tour of apologies that cast him in terms of a supplicant and he’s hewing to liberal views in order to possibly gain absolution from some of his critics. And I think that’s very harmful. His comments were indefensible, unconscionable, and Senate Republicans need to act and act quickly.

GWEN IFILL: Emma Coleman Jordan, we’re hearing from Republicans and Democrats a pretty harsh take on Senator Lott’s first comments and also on his latest apology. What are yours?

EMMA COLEMAN JORDAN: Well, I think this is an example of a politician in such severe trouble that he’s willing to turn 360 degrees on basic positions. And I think that that fact is an illustration of the difficulty that he probably encounters. I think also that this is more than just a problem for the Republicans. I’ve heard that line. I don’t buy it.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean?

EMMA COLEMAN JORDAN: Trent Lott is Senate Majority Leader of the nation. And that means that Republicans, Democrats, independents and the disaffected are represented by this man. And, therefore, I believe the criticism, as strong as it’s been from Republicans, must be a broad-based criticism of this kind of behavior.

We have an opportunity here. The opportunity is to redefine the boundaries of acceptable discourse and belief. Trent Lott has been a man who was willing to go to the Council of Conservative Citizens in 1999 and to embrace their views. This organization filed a brief in the Virginia cross burning case that prompted the outburst from Justice Clarence Thomas. The organization said in that brief that cross burning was an expression of the views of the majority of Americans who believe that their decreasing number is being caused by the growth of non-whites in the country, and that cross burning was an expression that should be protected.

GWEN IFILL: You’re saying by having appeared before this group he aligns himself with those positions?

EMMA COLEMAN JORDAN: Yes, in 1999, he aligned himself with them and if you check their Web site today, he is prominently featured on that Web site as a person who they endorse including his position that we should send the military to our borders to keep immigrants out.

GWEN IFILL: Ward Connerly, we just heard Emma Coleman. Coleman talk about the broadening the acceptability of different points of view. You have actually championed in your career broadening the acceptability of different points of view within the African-American community particularly on affirmative action. We just heard Trent Lott say last night — we heard it earlier — that he is now for affirmative action. What is your reaction to that?

WARD CONNERLY: Affirmative action, Gwen, is a very nuanced issue. And I don’t know whether Senator Lott was referring to the kind of affirmative action that I would support, which is aggressive action to ferret out discrimination, make sure that job descriptions are relevant to the task that we want people to perform or whether he was referring to a form of preferences, if you will, that I think Ed Gordon was referring to. So I don’t know whether Senator Lott was being a little bit cute or whether he just didn’t understand the nuances or what.

GWEN IFILL: One second on that.

WARD CONNERLY: Again it was unsatisfactory.

GWEN IFILL: The follow up question I believe from Ed Gordon was do you support affirmative action across the board. To that he said yes. Do you think there’s room for an interpretation of what he meant?

WARD CONNERLY: Candidly I don’t. I think that he switched positions. That’s my interpretation. It’s very important, however, that no matter how much we abhor the inference that we… that one could reasonably gain from what Senator Lott originally said following Strom Thurmond’s birthday party, that it’s not his actual words that we object to. It’s the inference that we draw — a reasonable inference.

But we have to be very careful apart from the issue of race that we not judge people on the basis of what we think they intended. All of us have said things that lend themselves to misinterpretation or interpretation that we may not have intended. So it’s important from a civil liberties standpoint that we be very careful here.

GWEN IFILL: You think there’s a lot of overreaching going on right now with this?

WARD CONNERLY: Gwen, I think there is. I think this has gone beyond Senator Lott. It’s become a very partisan issue. I agree with the Professor who said that it’s extremely important that this not just be a black issue. All Americans, I would think, would want integration and would want what we’re trying to achieve in this nation not just black people.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman Fattah, is that you trying to get in?

REP. CHAKA FATTAH: I think when you see the Wall Street Journal, the New York Post, Rush Limbaugh, when you see Senator Nickles and Hagel, Warner and others, these are Republican elected officials and conservative entities who have said what they have taken from Trent Lott’s words and his record is wrong. I don’t know what this definition of affirmative action is for some. For me it’s like the Jackie Robinson program. There were no blacks allowed in baseball. They decided to change it. You had to go out and find another white person to play baseball but find people who had been locked out and let them play in the game. That’s affirmative action.

GWEN IFILL: Congressman, let me ask you about another policy issue he talked about last night. He talked about voting rights. We just heard him say that he is trying to atone – is the word he used — by supporting election reform. Isn’t that something you would welcome?

REP. CHAKA FATTAH: I commend Senator Lott, I co-sponsored the election reform bill that’s now been signed into law. And I commend him for his support and the Republican leadership’s support on that bill but it needs to be fully funded. It still does not erase all of the other points along the point of dispute here between Senator Lott’s record. He was the only member of the U.S. Senate to vote against Roger Gregory as a… the first African American to serve on the Fifth Circuit after President Clinton appointed him. I mean there are issues that are very troubling. Again, it will say something about the Republican Party if they elect him as their leader again.

GWEN IFILL: Ms. Jordan, you wanted to say something.

EMMA COLEMAN JORDAN: Yeah. I think this opportunity that we have in this discussion about Trent Lott and his comments gives us an opportunity to determine what is disqualifying from holding public office? There are some things you cannot apologize out of: murder; a difficult abusive relationship; membership in offensive organization. An apology cannot erase commitments that precede that are unacceptable.

I think what we’re seeing here is not simply a parsing of his words. His words both at the 100th birthday celebration nor his words after. What we’re seeing is the character of the man. That he would come to a 100th birthday party celebration, bring up the basest views represented by the honoree, take those as his own and not only that he said that Jefferson Davis, a man who defended slavery in the Civil War of this country was the person he felt closest to in his life. This is unacceptable. That is what we are saying across the political spectrum. I think it’s an important consensus to emerge that there are some thoughts and beliefs and actions that are unacceptable and cannot be apologized away.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Kirsanow, respond to that. What is unacceptable? What is… let me make up a word– disqualifiable in this case? Should the Senate Majority Leader have to step down; should he have to leave Congress entirely for what he terms was an unfortunate turn of phrase which doesn’t reflect where he stands today?

PETER KIRSANOW: Well it was offensive. I tend to disagree slightly that in fact we can’t infer from his statements or we should only infer from his statements what he seems to have been saying is that well he’s making statements at the celebratory dinner for a certain individual that is just celebrating his 100th birthday and therefore that might be a mitigating factor. There’s only a slight mitigation when it comes to that. I think it’s absolutely clear what he’s been trying to say. He said it more than once. What’s offensive is the allusion to a period of time of Jim Crow that was a horrible period of time of segregation, lynchings, oppression, disenfranchisement. Anyone who holds to a position that that is in fact acceptable or tolerable or something that should be lightly alluded to even in a celebratory affair such as that for Strom Thurmond has got an issue that disqualifies him from the Senate leadership. Now should he step down — I don’t believe so.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me ask you a question. Does this make your job tougher as a black Republican selling the ideals the Republican Party to African Americans. I want to ask ward Connerly that question once you’ve responded. Does it make your job tougher?

PETER KIRSANOW: I think it’s transient in that I think it depends on the alacrity with which the Senate Republicans address this, but there is going to be at least a temporal difficulty with selling the Republican Party because it feeds into unfortunately the false stereotype that the Republican Party is somehow a party of intolerance, a problem that… a party that has problems with certain minority groups and for that reason we have to overcome maybe a little taller hurdle than we had in the past.

But I think this is an opportunity because we have a President who at least for the Republican Party engaged in the most aggressive outreach of any Republican President in history who I think understands the tone, understands the language, presents an opportunity to engage in pretty significant outreach to all minority groups but especially black Americans.

GWEN IFILL: Let me get to Ward Connerly on this. Will race always be a sore point and social discourse?

WARD CONNERLY: Yes, this is going to be difficult. No doubt about it. But it’s not just going to be difficult with black people. I think it’s difficult with Latinos, with moderate whites that are independents. Democrats and Republicans both have their baggage on race.

It’s just that Senator Lott is now the issue and he has made it very difficult for the Republican Party, I think, to reach out to people and to say that while we might have our differences about how we bring people into the mainstream of the American economy, we really have no tolerance for segregation or the way we did things in the past. He has really complicated life in a political sense.

GWEN IFILL: Ward Connerly, Chaka Fattah, Peter Kirsanow, and Emma Coleman Jordan, thank you very much for joining us.