JIM LEHRER: The Lott controversy goes into a second week. Kwame Holman begins.
KWAME HOLMAN: The third week in December at the Capitol traditionally is characterized by empty offices and little, if any, activity. But today, echoes continued from Senate Republican leader Trent Lott's complimentary comments about an imaginary presidency under former segregationist Strom Thurmond. Republican Senators on capitol busily hill and those calling from home busily debated whether Lott should stay or go as their leader.
Most discussions occurred behind closed doors, but Montana's Conrad Burns said in a statement: "It is not fair for us to leave Sen. Lott's future as Senate Majority Leader uncertain, nor is it helpful for the party to let the issue go unresolved. There needs to be some closure very soon. So it is important that we hold a conference and hear each other's thoughts."
Yesterday, the second-ranking Republican leader, Don Nickles of Oklahoma, became the first GOP Senator to suggest publicly the possibility that Lott be ousted. Nickles told ABC News: "I am concerned that Senator Lott has been weakened to the point that it may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans. There are several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership and I hope we have an opportunity to choose." On his way into church at home in Mississippi, Lott was asked about Nickles' comment.
SEN. TRENT LOTT: Well, you let him explain that. See ya.
KWAME HOLMAN: At the White House today, Spokesman Ari Fleischer reiterated the President's position from last week.
ARI FLEISCHER: The president does not believe that Trent Lott needs to resign. The president thinks that what Trent Lott said was wrong, and the president found those remarks offensive. And the president said that Trent Lott was right to apologize.
KWAME HOLMAN: And this afternoon, Senate Republicans agreed to meet when they return to Washington in three weeks to settle Lott's fate as their leader. Lott was scheduled later this evening to be interviewed on Black Entertainment Television, a cable network with a largely African-American audience.
JIM LEHRER: We sort through this now with four columnists and editors: Joseph Perkins of the "San Diego Union Tribune"; Bill Kristol of the "Weekly Standard". There are some traffic problems here in Washington; we hope to be joined later by Tom Oliphant of the Boston Globe, and Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune. Bill, what's your reading of where things stand on this tonight?
BILL KRISTOL: Oh, I think Trent Lott is in deep trouble. He's a good vote counter, I don't think he has the support of a majority of his colleagues in the Republican Caucus, I think he'll discover that this week. And I personally think he may step down this week rather than take this to the conference meeting on January 6th and put to it a vote.
JIM LEHRER: Joe Perkins, how does it look to you from San Diego?
JOSEPH PERKINS: I think Bill probably is a better vote counter than I am, but I didn't think that Senate Republicans had turned against their leader. It will be interesting to see what happens when they hold that caucus. But it seemed to me that Lott had turned a corner, until Nickles' recent remarks.
JIM LEHRER: What is your reading, Bill Kristol, on Nickles, what caused Nickles to do what he did?
BILL KRISTOL: Well, he's never gotten along terribly with Senator Lott.
JIM LEHRER: What was the problem between the two of them?
BILL KRISTOL: Just, I think, competing ambitions, that sometimes happens in politics, no great ideological divide; personality clashes. Senator Nickles will be a candidate for leader if Senator Lott steps down, or maybe if he doesn't.
But I also think, to be fair, Don Nickles is a conservative Republican who does not like the idea that now conservative Republicans are going to be defined by Senator Lott's statement. That's the reason a lot of conservatives I think have been very critical of Lott. And whatever is in his soul, and whatever his personal views, and I don't think he is personally bigoted, and nonetheless he is not the man to lead Republicans in the Senate for the next two years. I think that's what Nickles thought. He had the courage really to come out and say it. I'm not sure that will benefit him personally, you know, no good deed goes unpunished in politics, and there'll be a certain sense that Nickles is the guy who delivered the unfortunate message, maybe we should turn to someone else to be leader now. But in any case I think Nickles was being pretty sincere in what he said.
JIM LEHRER: Your colleague David Brooks said on this program Friday night that the one that thrusts in the knife is never the one who gets the job, so don't count on Nickles, is that what you're saying?
BILL KRISTOL: There's a lot of respect for Nickles, he'll be a candidate. I think he will be a strong candidate. Mitch McConnell, the incoming number two who has been a Lott defender for the last week, will be a strong candidate. Someone like Bill Frist may run also. These races are awfully hard to read from the outside. So much depends on personal relationships. This is all presuming, of course, that Trent Lott has withdrawn, but I think he will. I've talked to an awful lot of people on the Hill today, mostly staff, a few senators, and I don't think they want Trent Lott to be their leader for the next two years.
JIM LEHRER: Joe Perkins, do you think Lott should go?
JOSEPH PERKINS: Well, based on the remark that he made, I would say no, if you're saying tactically and strategically from the perspective of the Republican Party whether should he go, maybe yes he should because he's essentially damaged goods. And Bill was suggesting earlier that the face of the Republican Party in a lot of people's minds is Trent Lott. And if that, if the party is perceived as being intolerant to minorities by virtue of Lott's remark, then probably for the good of the party he ought to step down.
But having said that, I think it's important to recognize that what we have here is a double standard, in how Republicans like Lott are treated versus Democrats. Here in my home state, California, the lieutenant governor of this state last February delivered a speech to a group of blacks for Black History month in which he used the "n" word. And I didn't hear anyone calling for his ouster; of course, everyone who follows the career of Bob Byrd from West Virginia remembers how not so long ago, he used the "n" word too in remarks. And not one of those who are calling for Lott's head, called for Byrd's ouster. So there appears to me to be selective outrage in the treatment of Republican like Lott versus Democrats who are guilty of the same sin.
JIM LEHRER: Do you see it that way too, Bill?
BILL KRISTOL: Yeah, to some degree. But look, my view on this is that conservatives like me have some special obligation to discuss, to monitor so to speak, what conservative leaders say. Obviously it's up to Senator Lott's colleagues what, whether he's the right man to lead them; people like me can just give them advice. But from my point of view as someone who worked in two Republican administrations - worked with Joe Perkins actually in the Bush and the Quayle...for Dan Quayle in the Bush administration - I don't think Trent Lott is the person to lead the Republican Party in the Senate for the next two years. So I do think he should step down as leader, I think he should put the good of the party and really the good of the country above his personal ambition to remain as leader.
JIM LEHRER: So from your point of view it doesn't have anything to do with any possible double standards, with Robert Byrd, or the lieutenant governor of California?
BILL KRISTOL: I'd like to be able so say to my liberal friends that I hope you are as tough on liberals who really say outrageous things, as I think conservative columnists and journalists have proven to be in the case of Senator Lott. And will you be as tough when someone excuses some inexcusable policy from the past. Henry Wallace also ran in 1948, I've thought about this recently.
If a Democratic leader got up and said at a tribute to someone, if Wallace was still alive or someone who had supported Henry Wallace, the Progressive - I guess it was Party candidate, but was really in bed with the Communists, I think it's fair to say -- very soft on Communism. If some Democrat got up today and said, you know the country would be better off if Henry Wallace had won in 1948, rather than Harry Truman, I do hope that the Democratic leaders would have risen up and liberal columnists would have risen up and say look, that's not what we want for our party.
JOSEPH PERKINS: Bill, I think we know that most of them would not have. They can do no wrong, as long as they have a "D" beside their name. And that is a double standard. But having said that, I think Lott's problem is that his offense rises to the level where in the minds of many of his fellow Republicans - including conservatives - he is damaged goods and is hurting the interests of the party to broaden its support, particularly among minorities and women, groups that the Republicans are trying to make inroads with.
JIM LEHRER: Do you believe that? I'm sorry, go ahead, finish. I want to know if you believe that yourself. Do you believe that for that reason he should go, that he is now, he now puts the wrong face to minorities and to others for the Republican Party?
JOSEPH PERKINS: Well, I am afraid that he has. I believe that at this point, he is a liability to the party. And that is because he becomes the figure, the pariah, around which the Democrats can rally. And so in that case, he has, I think, become such a liability to the party, that in the party's interest he probably should step down. And also, there are 51 Republicans in the upper chamber, I just can't believe there is not one other who is capable of leading the party who doesn't have the baggage that Trent Lott now has.
JIM LEHRER: Well, Joe, let's back up a step. Do you think based on what Trent Lott said and based on his record up to what he said, that he legitimately should be put aside as leader?
JOSEPH PERKINS: No. For those remarks in the context in which he said them, I do not believe that that is such an egregious sin that he should resign, no, I don't. I think that the reason that he should resign, the reason he may very well resign, is because this has risen to such a level where it's injurious to his party's interests.
JIM LEHRER: Now, Bill, do you think what he said just in and of itself is enough?
BILL KRISTOL: Well, what he said and his failure to understand the implications of what he said. His first two or three apologies, which were of the "if anyone takes offense I'm sorry" sort, he didn't understand the historical importance of repudiating the Dixiecrat legacy. I understand he's from Mississippi, it's easy for me to say this-- I'm from New York, and live in Northern Virginia - but, nonetheless, I mean, for Republicans and as Americans that was, segregation was wrong, as the president said. The civil rights movement was a good thing for America, Mississippi is a much better state today than 50 years ago.
And Trent Lott just didn't seem able to say that right away. If he said that the day after his original statement, if he had said, look, I was trying to be nice to Strom Thurmond but I believe segregation is wrong, I believe Mississippi is better off now that we have equality, or we are moving towards real equality among the races, I'm not nostalgic for the days of segregation and the Dixiecrat campaign…if he had said that right away, I think people would have said Trent Lott said a silly thing. But he didn't say that for a whole week.
JIM LEHRER: Clarence Page has now joined us. What do you think? Do you think that Trent Lott, if he had done something along the lines of what Bill Kristol just outlined, he could have survived this? Of course, he has survived it as we speak, but he wouldn't be in the trouble he's in.
CLARENCE PAGE: Yeah, it would have minimized a lot of the damage that became maximized instead. It's still damaging, and a bigger problem as well is all that's come out since then. We've had a constant cumulative recitation of Trent Lott's past statements, including this one, which he said back in 1980, as well as other controversial relationships he's had with archconservatives, like the Council on Conservative Citizens, which is a modern version of the old White Citizens Council, a modern version of the old Ku Klux Klan, a lot of things have come out that have made him damaged goods politically. Believe me, Democrats publicly sound outraged, but privately, many of them are delighted over the soundbite he's given for the 2004 campaign. Many Republicans feel that while publicly supporting him, privately wish he and the problem would go away, not that he would leave the Senate, but that the problem would go away.
JIM LEHRER: Before you joined us, Joe Perkins in San Diego made the point that yes, he's damaged political goods and he should go for that reason, but not just because of what he said at the Thurmond birthday party. How would you respond to that?
CLARENCE PAGE: Well, Joe is a good friend and he's a fine capable journalist. He's not as old as I am. I personally remember the white and colored signs, I remember moving to the back of the bus, I remember that horrible episode. It digs deeply for those of us who remember it personally. And indeed President Bush had the right words: it was a disgrace to our traditions. When the president gets up and says that you have spoken words that are un-American, it didn't get much sharper than that. I mean, there's kind of a hint there that Trent Lott should take.
JIM LEHRER: Joe Perkins, what do you think about how the president handled this and do you agree with what the president said?
JOSEPH PERKINS: I do agree with what the president said. But the president also said he didn't think that Trent Lott should resign. And I think that the reason he said that is because he doesn't believe that Trent Lott said it with malice in his heart, and because he truly believed that the days of segregation and Jim Crow and when the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black families throughout much of the South, that Trent Lott really was nostalgic for those days. And it worries me when I see so much made of an innocuous statement like this, when there are really true cases of overt racism that rear themselves throughout the land. And so we almost risk trivializing real racism when we make such a big deal out of a remark such as the one that Trent Lott made. That's my fear.
JIM LEHRER: Clarence.
CLARENCE PAGE: This is real racism. I mean, there's no two ways about it. Strom Thurmond has renounced the Strom Thurmond that Trent Lott has endorsed. This is not a naive statement, it's not a casual statement, it's one that Trent Lott has carried around with him for at least 20 years now we know, he's delivered it publicly before. I'm sure in 1980 Jackson, Mississippi in a Reagan rally this was a good applause line. But it's not a good applause line in 2002 as the Senate Majority Leader, and this is like the Republican Party driving into a new century with a brand new Rolls Royce with a very ugly hood ornament.
JIM LEHRER: Let me ask you to put your reporter hat on here now. I asked Bill Kristol before you came what he saw happening here, where are we on this. What are you and your fellow sister reporters at the Chicago Tribune picking up, is this thing over for Lott or what do you think?
CLARENCE PAGE: I'm hearing mixed reports. But a number of people think that he's not going to last past mid-week at the rate this has been going. For Don Nickles to step forward now and talk about the need for a vote sounds like a pretty good idea. I think a vote of confidence or no confidence, as they call it in other countries, wouldn't be a bad idea now as the Senate goes into the new session.
JIM LEHRER: And Bill Kristol, you think sooner rather than later, I won't last until January 6?
BILL KRISTOL: I think Lott will not be Majority Leader at the end of this week.
JIM LEHRER: At the end of this week?
BILL KRISTOL: Right, or he will have announced his intention not to give it up, and I think then the Republican Conference on January 7th will choose among a fresh batch of candidates.
JIM LEHRER: Well, you know, Tom Oliphant was supposed to be sitting there and I'm sure he would have contributed tremendous things to this discussion. But we'll just have to imagine what he said. But Joe, Bill, Clarence, I thank the three of you very much.