I was in the back of a cab and the driver was listening to Sean Hannity, the conservative talk show host. Hannity is a man of immense courage, I quickly learned, because he said so over and over again. Despite the dominance and power of the liberal media, Hannity nevertheless felt compelled -- it was his sacred obligation -- to say that Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is not a racist for praising Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential race on behalf of racial segregation. Speaking up for the liberal media from the back seat, I offered my two cents: I agree.
The driver did not pay any attention. But if he had, I would have explained that Lott's kiss to the departing Thurmond -- who has been in the Senate since the Second Battle of Manassas -- was so preposterous it defies categorization.
"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him," Lott said. "We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
No, we would have had civil war.
Thurmond's candidacy back in '48 was explicitly racist. "All the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches," he said. His party's platform put it this way: "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race." Thurmond carried four states -- Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and his own South Carolina. Harry Truman won. You can look it up.
It's impossible to believe that Lott was in any way endorsing this platform. It's equally impossible to believe that he could think that, had Thurmond carried the day, the nation would have been better off. In my occasional visits to Mississippi, I have come across almost no one who does not think that desegregation saved the state from remaining a wayward part of the Third World -- backward economically and in every other way as well.
But if it's impossible to believe that Lott is a racist, it is just as hard to see him remaining as the Senate majority leader. After all, he did not confine his praise to Thurmond the man -- his after-the-fact explanation of what he said -- but singled out the '48 campaign. This was a campaign waged on behalf of keeping African Americans second-class citizens -- of depriving them of their basic rights, including the effective right to vote.
Lott is intellectually stunted by a pernicious and -- if the Senate had any sense -- politically lethal case of Margaret Mitchell Syndrome. He speaks as a conservative white man and only as a conservative white man. It is his only frame of reference. He does not have the slightest empathy for what it once meant to be black in the Jim Crow South -- and how the past is not something we call history but events that shape the present.
The monumentally courageous Hannity, second only to the sainted Rush Limbaugh in audience and influence, accuses the liberal press of making too much of Lott's remark and, worse, of applying a double standard. Hannity told his audience, for instance, that Bill Clinton repeatedly paid homage to the late Sen. J. William Fulbright of Arkansas, an erudite man who once supported racial segregation. I suspect we will hear more of this silliness.
Yes, Clinton has praised Fulbright -- but never his record on race, which was of its time and place and adopted largely for politically expedient reasons. Lott's praise of Thurmond, on the other hand, was not only explicit but an actionable case of self-plagiarism. "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today," he said back in 1980. Decade after decade, this man learns nothing.
I am extremely reluctant to call anyone a racist. The word has been too often used to silence dissent, much like "communist" once was. I frankly have no idea what's in Lott's head, but I don't think he truly holds racist views or hankers for the good ol' days of lynchings, segregated water fountains and blacks in the back of the bus.
But I recall what might seem like a trivial matter. Years ago, a Howard University professor told me that as a boy in the South he was forced to buy shoes without first trying them on for fit. Only whites could do that. Think of that and then think of what Lott said. The majority leader of the Senate may not be a racist, but he is remarkably incapable of appreciating what it was like to walk in those shoes.