When a politician gets in a big, stinking heap of trouble, nothing is more welcome than a friendly media person.

That's why Trent Lott went on the air yesterday with Sean Hannity.

At a time when Lott is being kicked around by conservative commentators as well as the nattering nabobs of liberalism, Hannity provided a much-needed sanctuary.

Not many on the right are defending the Senate majority leader for embracing Strom Thurmond's segregationist candidacy of 54 years ago -- especially after the revelation that Lott used the same "poor choice of words" at a 1980 rally with Ronald Reagan.

"What Lott said is utterly indefensible and stupid," Rush Limbaugh declared.

National Review's Jonah Goldberg called Lott's remarks "incandescently idiotic" in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

But Hannity remained a member in good standing of the tattered Team Lott. On his Fox News program, Hannity tried to get Lott off the hook by playing the Clinton card:

"We have back in October of this year, William Jefferson Clinton, in Arkansas saying wonderful things, what a remarkable man J. William Fulbright, former senator from Arkansas is, a known segregationist. He gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom Award, a known segregationist, one of 19 senators who issued a statement entitled 'The Southern Manifesto', condemning the '54 Supreme Court decision of Brown vs. Board of Education, defending segregation. Why hasn't anyone condemned Bill Clinton for doing far worse than what Trent Lott has done here?"

Thus it was that Lott broke his silence on Hannity's radio show, a segment also carried by Fox.

Lott is hardly the first to go the friendly-media route. Al Gore, having bashed Fox as part of the great right-wing conspiracy, went on "Hannity & Colmes" Tuesday night -- but only by taping an interview with the liberal half of the duo, Alan Colmes.

Hannity is a rising star among conservative talkmeisters. He's written a best-selling book ("Let Freedom Ring"), he's got a Web site, and his New York-based radio program has been picked up by more than 100 markets since going national last year. He's also a reliable pro-Republican voice, having once charged, for example, that Tom Daschle "wants the recession to continue for his own political advantage."


To his credit, Hannity asked all the right questions. Lott gave a broader apology for his "terrible" and "insensitive" words, and said of segregation: "I don't accept those policies of the past at all."

Next move: phoning Larry King, who's not exactly known for harshly interrogating his guests. (Follow-up question: "What do you make of all the hullabaloo?") Lott did say he rejected the segregationist policies of the past.

What's fascinating about this saga is that for days, most of the media couldn't be bothered to report it; now there are cable updates every 20 minutes. The Democrats who couldn't be bothered to comment are now body-slamming Lott all over the place. John Kerry has called for Lott to give up his leadership post (what constituency could he have his eye on?) Ted Kennedy and Joe Lieberman have hit Lott. Terry McAuliffe is demanding that President Bush denounce Lott's remarks. Jesse Jackson has entered the fray. People for the American Way has called for Lott to resign, as has the New York Times editorial page. The outrage industry is in full swing.

It doesn't take much courage, of course, to jump on this kind of bandwagon once it's already rolling.

Conservatives are also deserting the Mississippian. Fox contributor Charles Krauthammer says Lott should step down for what he calls a "capital offense."

"Trying to quell an uproar over comments he made last week that were criticized as racially divisive, Senator Trent Lott apologized at length today in a radio interview, saying his own words were 'terrible,'" says the New York Times.

"Republicans began rallying around Mr. Lott today, but his latest remarks did not satisfy Democrats, who called on Mr. Lott, a Mississippi Republican, to step aside as the incoming majority leader and urged the White House to repudiate the original remarks. One leading Democratic senator, John Kerry of Massachusetts, a possible presidential contender, called on Mr. Lott to resign his leadership post. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"Former Vice President Al Gore, one of the first Democrats to speak out strongly against Mr. Lott this week, said he did not believe Mr. Lott's apology answered the criticism. 'It is simply not credible to state that Thurmond's campaign in 1948 makes him think about national defense,' Mr. Gore said. 'It was a campaign based on segregation.'"


Josh Marshall says Lott's sin was saying what he really thinks:

"I don't want to overplay the political significance of this. And I'm certainly not going to say the guy is toast. But I think Trent Lott's in real trouble. The conventional wisdom on the news today was that Lott had pretty much put this story to bed with his 'apology.' I didn't think that was true. Now it seems clear that it's not true.

"But you don't have to have your ear to the ground or be getting tips about long forgotten speeches to know this. Much of the wobbly coverage of this story (and much of the deep unease over this among conservatives) stems from fact that this obviously wasn't some misstatement or hyperbole or slip of the tongue. It's what the guy believes. You can tell that from just listening to his words. And it's clear from the man's long history of hobnobbing with neo-confederate wing-nuts and general nostalgia for the pre-civil-rights era South. It's even painfully, and belatedly, clear from his weird unwillingness to utter even a pro forma condemnation of segregation. It's what the guy believes. And for a lot of reasons that makes it hard for a lot of journalists to cover it.

"You don't have to believe that the guy's an out and out racist. But it's very hard not to conclude that he sees the old Jim Crow days as the good ol' days. And that's pretty damn bad.

"This shines a light in some pretty dark places. It makes a lot of people really uncomfortable. And it's not going away."


Andrew Sullivan sees dire consequences for the Republican Party:

"Sorry to those who think I'm making too much of this. But it seems to me that the G.O.P. has zero credibility on racial matters until they get rid of this man as Senate Majority Leader. When I'm in agreement with the Family Research Council, a virulently anti-gay group, you know something's got to give.

"Tuesday night's revelation -- that Lott had said almost identical things over twenty years ago -- clinches in my mind that this was not a poor choice of words. It was a classic political gaffe -- where the politician in question accidentally says what he truly believes. And no, I don't think bringing up Robert Byrd, another old bigot, is a satisfactory response. It's a sign that you cannot defend someone when you respond by attacking someone else.

"Lott had a chance to repudiate his words and he chose to side-step the issue. He's flirted with racists before. He's said the same things before. It seems to me that president Bush now has his Sister Souljah opportunity. Just as Clinton secured centrist backing when he repudiated the anti-white racism of Sister Souljah, so Bush needs to repudiate the anti-black racism of Lott publicly, clearly and irrevocably. If he doesn't, then I'm afraid he will lose any black support indefinitely and the respect of many decent voters who aren't black as well. Lott's remarks are, in fact, a direct insult to black members of the administration and the Republican Party. Mr. President, we're waiting for you to say something."


Even the conservatives at the American Prowler are openly casting about for a replacement:

"Five days after Sen. Majority Leader Trent Lott made his unfortunate comments regarding the political heritage of the Dixiecrats, Republicans on Capitol Hill and conservatives in Washington and around the country are discussing how best to call for Lott's stepping aside as Senate leader.

"According to a knowledgeable Republican source, GOP members of both houses are extremely concerned that Lott's comments have so derailed the momentum gained from the 2002 elections that it would be impossible to come in in January, make numerous political confirmations for the executive branch, and begin planning a legislative agenda that would include accelerating the Bush tax cuts and pushing through a prescription drug plan for seniors.

"Even more upsetting to Republicans is the realization that Lott's comments may make it virtually impossible for them to bring a number of controversial judicial nominations to the Senate floor successfully.

"Republican Senate staffers meeting over lunch and in the hallways of Capitol Hill have already begun throwing out successor names, such as outgoing Republican Whip Don Nickles, incoming Whip Mitch McConnell, and even rising star Sen. Bill Frist."


Stephen Moore, the Club for Growth guy, has been dishing negative quotes about Bush's choice for economic adviser, and now weighs in on National Review:

"What do you do when you've done everything you can to try to save a friend from making a grave error, but they don't want to be saved?

"That is the situation with the apparent impending nomination of former Goldman Sachs partner Stephen Friedman to be head of the President's National Economic Council. After two days of furious lobbying by the Reaganite supply-side klan to prevent a catastrophically ill-advised appointment, the Bush White House has now tried to gamely reassure free-market tax cutters that Friedman will be a loyal team player who can help sell the president's economic program of tax cuts to generate jobs and growth.

"I will bet you a nickel they're wrong. The problem is that this nominee .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. has no history of supporting tax cuts -- ever. So how in the world can he sell a program that he has never shown any inclination of believing in? President Bush deposed his economics team last week because -- fairly or unfairly -- they were thought by the White House to be deficient in their ability to sell the president's product to Wall Street and Capitol Hill. Friedman is likely to suffer the same defects."


The right must be taking John Kerry's candidacy seriously. On the Wall Street Journal edit page, Mark Steyn explains why the expensive-haircut story really does matter:

"The Kerry candidacy is such an obvious disaster waiting to happen that it seems a shame to wait for it to happen.

"The reason Al Gore isn't in the White House today is because of the cultural disconnect between him and southern rural white males. Though officially running as a Tennessee farmer, he was perceived as an elite Massachusetts liberal. Replacing him with a real elite Massachusetts liberal seems unlikely to return Tennessee, Arkansas and West Virginia to the fold. As for the notion, promoted by many respected political analysts, that Mr. Kerry, being from Massachusetts, would have an edge in the New Hampshire primary, that betrays a somewhat hazy grasp of the relationship between the Granite State and its southern neighbor. In 2004, Granite State Democrats will be looking to recover from the hammering they got last month when a pro-tax gubernatorial candidate dragged the rest of the ticket down with him -- elevating a Massachusetts liberal who wants to raise taxes is not the best way to do that.

"Now already I can hear Sen. Kerry frothing like a vat of Alberto Balsam on Don King's head: 'I don't want to raise taxes. I just want to repeal the tax cuts you were expecting to get but haven't yet. It's not the same!' To which I say: Whatever, dude. But personally I'd save the hair-splitting for Cristophe's. By the time you've spent 20 minutes explaining why your tax hike isn't really a tax hike, the only two words anyone's going to remember are 'tax' and 'hike.'

"And this is where the hair comes in. A lot of solemn Democratic operatives have deplored the Beltway obsession with Mr. Kerry's $75 hair care: it's much of nothing about a 'do, they say; just another of the media's Drudge-fueled descents into gossip and trivia. True, and that's good enough for me. But, if I have to come up with a highfalutin gloss to justify the story, I'd say it's this: The haircut catches the fancy because it seems to cut to the essence of the Kerry candidacy, whose problem as a whole is that it's over-styled."

Maybe he should go the buzz-cut route.

Clarence Thomas usually remains silent on the high court bench, but not yesterday:

"Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas condemned cross-burning yesterday for its terrifying link to '100 years of lynchings in the South' as the high court considered whether the practice is a form of free speech protected by the Constitution," the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

"Thomas, who rarely speaks during oral arguments and is the court's only black justice, said a flaming cross symbolized a 'reign of terror' against blacks. 'It is unlike any symbol in our society. It was intended to cause fear and terrorize a population,' said Thomas, who grew up in segregated Georgia."


The New York Post goes with a "BAR HUMBUG" front page:

"It's lights out for smokers. Mayor Bloomberg and City Council leaders announced yesterday that they've reached a long-awaited deal to ban smoking in most indoor public spaces -- including bars, nightclubs and restaurants. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}.

"The legislation, among the most restrictive in the nation, is expected to be imitated by municipalities across the nation, anti-smoking advocates said. Bloomberg reluctantly agreed to exempt seven existing cigar bars, owner-operated bars, fraternal organizations, outdoor cafes, and bars willing to spend large sums to create separate high-tech smoking rooms where employees would be barred."


Hmmm. .{sbquo}.{sbquo}. What about newsrooms?

Boston Phoenix's Dan Kennedy is worried about the chilling effect of an Australian court decision:

"Those who think John Ashcroft is the biggest threat to their free-speech rights are about to get a terrifying awakening. The High Court of Australia has ruled that a mining mogul can file a libel suit against Dow Jones in the Australian court system, even though the offending article -- in Barron's magazine -- was published in New Jersey. The rationale: the article was posted on the Web. Thus the court ruled that the article was 'published' in Australia just as surely as it was in the United States.

"And what is the deal with this bit of nonsense from the usually stalwart Jonathan Zittrain, a Harvard Law School professor who's an outspoken advocate of online freedom? Zittrain told the AP that the ruling was no big deal, explaining, 'Their words are their product and if they export it internationally they know how to work the cost of litigation into the sale of their product.' Huh? One of the most important qualities of Internet journalism is that it gives independent, alternative voices the power to go up against Big Media.

"Dow Jones may be able to afford the cost of defending itself against an Australian libel suit. An independent operator, on the other hand, is going to have to stay out of Australia -- or avoid writing anything controversial in the first place."


Finally, we just love this Cherie Blair story. Here's the Wall Street Journal's take:

"The British have long known that Cherie Blair was a little eccentric. With her husband, Prime Minister Tony Blair, she participated in a rebirthing ceremony in Mexico last year involving smearing fruit and mud on their bodies and screaming, according to numerous British press reports. She is also said to have worn a 'bioelectric shield pendant' to ward off stray electrical beams from computers and other devices. One of her close associates is regularly reported by the British press to communicate with the dead."

And that's a problem?

"But now Mrs. Blair, a 48-year-old mother of four and highly successful human-rights lawyer, is at the center of a national maelstrom. Faced with a barrage of newspaper stories over the past week, she has been forced to concede that she sought advice on the purchase of two apartments from an Australian, Peter Foster, who has been convicted of fraud in cases involving the sale of teas touted for their slimming effects. It didn't help that Mr. Foster is a boyfriend of Carole Caplin, a former topless model who has long been described in the press as Mrs. Blair's 'lifestyle guru,' providing advice on exercise, fashion and spirituality.

"Mrs. Blair has known many indignities over the years -- such as the time news photographers snapped a picture of her opening her front door in a shabby nightgown with a hem well above her knees. This time, though, her taste in friends and advisers has become the dominant story in Britain. A page-one headline in Monday's Times of London asked: 'Should We Care If Mrs. Blair Is Bonkers?'"

We care. We care deeply.