Trent Lott, of course, had to go. That is fairly clear.
This isn't: Precisely what are the transgressions for which Lott was cast into the outer darkness?
The proximate sin, of course, was his statement made at Strom Thurmond's birthday bash that America would have been better off if that centenarian had been elected president when he ran on a segregationist platform in 1948. The response from his party was extraordinary. The president shunned him. His fellow party leaders kept their distance. His compatriot in the Senate, Thad Cochran, developed lockjaw. Perhaps the two best-known conservative newspaper pundits -- Charles Krauthammer and George Will -- publicly handed Lott his hat. And there was much head-shaking over how my fellow Mississippian still could be expressing nostalgia for the good old days when he and I couldn't have attended a school assembly together or shared a meal in a public restaurant anywhere in our state.
All this over a nostalgic lapse?
That might have been enough for black folks and liberals who wouldn't support Lott under any circumstance but who were quick to beat him with the stick he handed them. Some of us, convinced that racism plays a greater role in our lives than white people can understand, are grateful for anything that makes it clear that racist ideas still live in high places.
What really vexed the political right, though, is the impossibility of separating Lott the states' rights segregationist from Lott the anti-civil rights legislator. There appears to be a seamless continuity between the views he expressed to Thurmond and his votes in the House and Senate. You've read the list of those votes -- against the national holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, for instance, or against the 1988 Civil Rights Restoration Act. The implied question is this:
If it was racist to support (even in retrospect) Thurmond's campaign against the interests of black Americans, why isn't it racist to vote against those interests now?
You see the problem, of course. Many of those Republicans who have been so desperate to hustle Lott off the stage don't have any issue with his legislative record. These presumably would include the scores in both houses who voted against the King birthday bill, the Civil Rights Restoration Act and a 1998 measure to guarantee minority participation in highway construction projects.
Ralph Neas, president of the liberal People for the American Way, is careful not to ascribe any of these votes to racism. But he says the effects on the interests of minorities is the same. "The problem," he says, "is ideology, the states' rights doctrine that would keep the federal government out of most civil rights enforcement."
The difficulty for Neas is not that Lott didn't change but that Congress did. "When Lott voted against civil rights interests back in the early 1980s, he was isolated in a small minority, subject to override by what used to be a bipartisan coalition. Today, the Senate, along with a majority of the U.S. Supreme Court, is totally controlled by the right wing."
The people who have been giving Lott the bum's rush are a part of that control. What were they supposed to say about their arguably anti-black legislative records while the embattled Lott was apologizing for his? What were they supposed to say about their opposition to affirmative action, for instance, when the repentant Lott was on BET declaring his support for affirmative action "across the board" -- and promising to rethink his positions on a host of other issues?
It is impossible to review the succession of Lott apologies without concluding that he not only regrets the racial insensitivity of his birthday party remarks but also has come to suspect that some important aspects of his present political views -- the dominant views of his party -- may be racially insensitive as well.
You see why he had to go?