In a Dec. 12 article about Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), a quote was incorrectly attributed to Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.). It was Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (D-Conn.) who said Lott should "come forward with a specific renunciation and repudiation of the indefensible days of segregation." Daschle should have been quoted Wednesday as saying that Lott "should come forward with a fuller explanation and apology" and that he was "troubled that President Bush has remained silent and has not personally renounced these statements." (Published 12/13/02)
Senate Republican leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), under pressure from fellow Republicans, yesterday launched a new effort to quell a growing controversy over comments that implied support for past segregationist policies in the South, calling his words "terrible" and "insensitive" and asserting, "I don't accept those policies of the past at all."
With some Republicans privately warning him that his political future was at stake, Lott made his first public comments on a controversy that has built steadily into a serious problem not only for the leader but also for efforts by President Bush and other Republicans to portray their party as compassionate and inclusive to minorities.
As some Democrats called on Lott to step down as Republican leader, several Republican senators rose to his defense. But a longtime friend and ally, former housing secretary Jack Kemp, called Lott's remarks "inexplicable, indefensible and inexcusable." Kemp warned that until Lott does more to repudiate them, the party will suffer long-term damage.
Lott remained under fire yesterday from black elected officials as well as from conservative commentators for a statement last week in which he said the country "wouldn't have had all these problems over the years" if Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) had been elected president in 1948. Thurmond ran as the nominee of the segregationist Dixiecrat Party. Lott's comment was nearly identical to one he made at a political rally with Thurmond in 1980.
In an interview with conservative radio talk show host Sean Hannity, Lott said his remarks "conveyed an impression that is not accurate." He said that his reference to the idea of the country's being better off was not about race and segregation but about Thurmond's support for "a strong national defense and economic development and balanced budgets and opportunity."
Lott said last week's comment, made during a 100th birthday party for Thurmond, was "a mistake of the head and not of the heart," adding, "I apologize for the words, and I'm sorry that I used words that were insensitive."
It was Lott's second apology in three days. On Monday, as the controversy was beginning to grow, he issued a short, written statement. But when that failed to contain the damage, he yielded to the advice of other Republicans to make a more aggressive effort. That included the radio interview and an appearance last night on CNN's "Larry King Live."
On "Larry King," Lott rejected calls from Democrats and civil rights leaders that he step down as majority leader. "I do reject segregationist policies of the past," he told King. "We're way beyond those policies of the past, Larry. They were bad at the time; we've made huge progress since then. My state has more African American elected officials than any other state. We need to come together; we need to be uniters, not dividers."
Most Republicans on Capitol Hill have withheld comment about Lott's remarks, offering neither condemnation nor support. But yesterday, two senior Republicans, Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), defended Lott and said it was time to end the criticism.
Stevens called the criticism an "overreaction" and said that "it's now time to move on." Specter said he was confident that Lott did not support Thurmond's segregationist platform, adding, "His comment was an inadvertent slip, and his apology should end the discussion."
But Kemp said Lott needs to go before a civil rights group and make a major speech about race and racial reconciliation in the New South to help clear the air. Lott's comments, he said, had "set back what President Bush is trying to do to broaden the Republican Party."
Long an advocate for the GOP to return to its roots as the party of Abraham Lincoln, Kemp said that "until he [Lott] totally repudiates segregation and every aspect of its evil manifestation," the party would continue to suffer damage."
"The party can't duck it," Kemp said.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) said Republicans had played a key role in helping to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and that "any intimation that these old wounds should be reopened is unhelpful and unwelcome. I've worked with Trent Lott for years, and he's always been focused on moving our country forward."
Republican strategists, unwilling to criticize Lott publicly, said privately that the revelation that Lott had made an almost identical comment 20 years ago required a more vigorous repudiation from GOP leaders.
"Lott's comments could single-handedly set the party back a decade," a GOP strategist said. "All the efforts of outreach and inclusion and reaching out to nontraditional voters could be out the door, down the drain."
Democrats escalated their criticisms of Lott yesterday. Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and former vice president Al Gore called on Republicans to replace Lott as Republican leader in the Senate.
"My guess is that the uneasiness many Republicans are feeling about Lott becoming majority leader will become more pronounced in the wake of this interview," Gore said in a statement.
Kerry, a likely Democratic presidential candidate, said in a statement, "The question we face today has nothing to do with either. The question is whether someone who has made the statements Trent has made should be or can now effectively be the majority leader of the United States Senate."
Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary Committee, went further. He called for Lott's resignation, saying the fact that Lott last week had repeated almost word for word his comments from 1980 was "chilling confirmation that your remarks last week were not an inadvertent slip of the tongue."
Senate Democratic Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who initially accepted Lott's explanation, found himself under pressure among his colleagues to toughen his position, particularly after of the report about Lott's 1980 statement.
Lott, he said, should "come forward with a specific renunciation and repudiation of the indefensible days of segregation," Daschle said. He also called on Bush "to show us where he stands and make clear that Senator Lott's words were unacceptable."
Bush, who has made reaching out to blacks and Hispanics part of his presidency, has said nothing about Lott's remark. White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said Lott's 1980 comment was about "an entirely different subject" than race or segregation.
Asked whether Bush was prepared to denounce Lott, Fleischer said the president believes that the nation has made progress on racial issues and that "we are a better nation today as a result of the Civil Rights Movement and the civil rights changes."
The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson said that although Lott's statement may have been embarrassing to Republicans, it was "not inconsistent with their stances. They don't reject the philosophy of anti-labor, pro-states rights, anti-black. They are just embarrassed at how brazen the statement was."
Staff writer Helen Dewar and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.