Fighting to retain his leadership post, Senate Republican leader Trent Lott (Miss.) apologized Friday for what he called his "grievous mistake" the previous week that appeared to endorse segregation, and implored Americans to forgive him.
In his fourth and by far most profuse apology for his remarks praising the segregationist 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign of Strom Thurmond, Lott told a news conference in his home town here: "I apologize for opening old wounds and hurting many Americans who feel so deeply in this area. I take full responsibility for my remarks. . . . I only hope that people will find it in their heart to forgive me for that grievous mistake on that occasion."
Launching a public relations offensive, the senator said he will appear next week on an hour-long show on Black Entertainment Television (BET) to amplify what he called his egalitarian views on race and opportunity.
"I'm not about to resign for an accusation that I'm something I'm not," Lott said.
His half-hour appearance was perhaps the most important of his 30-year congressional career. Many senators said his Senate position hinged on whether he adequately explained his controversial remarks, showed contrition and demonstrated that he believes in racial equality. His political fate now rests in the hands of his 50 Senate GOP colleagues, although the White House easily could persuade them to force Lott from the leadership post if President Bush desired that.
For now, the great majority of GOP senators are taking a wait-and-see approach. Shortly after Lott spoke, more than 20 of them participated in a telephone conference call to discuss the fallout. Lott was not present.
In the call, put together by Sen. Larry E. Craig (R-Idaho), some members rallied around Lott, but a number expressed concerns about the controversy's possible impact on the legislative agenda and the 2004 elections, one participant said. Several GOP senators warned of a brewing political war with Democrats, who they predicted will continue to call for Lott's resignation for political reasons.
Lott's appearance Friday before reporters and TV cameras in a room packed with his supporters was both upbeat and defensive, meant to stanch an outpouring of criticism that intensified after Bush rebuked him Thursday. Lott was contrite, repeatedly condemning his earlier remarks and taking full responsibility for them, but he also insisted that they did not represent his real views or values.
The furor began Dec. 5 at a ceremony for Thurmond, who is retiring as a Republican senator from South Carolina. Lott told the gathering that the nation would not have had "all these problems" if Thurmond had been elected president in 1948. Lott made essentially the same comment at a 1980 political rally in Mississippi.
On Friday, Lott said: "Segregation and racism are immoral. . . . I feel very strongly about my faith. . . . If you feel strongly about that, you cannot in any way support discrimination or unfairness for anybody. It's just not consistent with the beliefs that I feel strongly about."
Lott's staff is circulating documents showing Lott's support for African Americans in the past.
Sen. Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the incoming majority whip, number two in the GOP leadership, and other Lott loyalists are calling colleagues and relaying concerns to Lott. One Lott ally said several GOP senators, including George Allen (Va.) and James Talent (Mo.), have raised concerns about the possible long-term political fallout from Lott's comments about the Dixiecrat agenda. So far, Lott's supporters have persuaded these senators to lay low.
Yet, in a sign of the Lott camp's concerns, some allies are quietly suggesting to GOP senators that Lott might resign from the Senate if he is forced out as leader, a move that could jeopardize the party's one-seat majority. Mississippi Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (D) presumably would appoint a Democrat to replace Lott, they note. That would leave the Senate evenly split, enabling Democrats to regain the majority if they could persuade a moderate Republican to switch parties.
A source close to Lott dismissed the scenario, saying, "[It] would be a cold day before Trent Lott gives his seat to a Democrat governor."
Lott picked up an unlikely expression of support Friday. Sen. James M. Jeffords (I-Vt.), who quit the GOP in 2001 and thus gave Democrats control of the chamber, said he believes Lott "made a mistake and said something in a manner" that doesn't reflect his true feelings. In his news conference, Lott also highlighted the public backing of former senator Paul E. Simon (D-Ill.).
While no prominent Republican has called Lott a racist, many worry that the senator, as head of the Senate GOP, will create the impression the party is insensitive to African Americans. The key to his survival might be time.
Still, it's the silence haunting Lott right now. Several key GOP senators have not risen to his defense, including incoming Budget Committee Chairman Don Nickles (Okla.) and many of the chamber's elder statesmen.
Dewar, staff writers Jim VandeHei and Darryl Fears, and researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report from Washington.