Roughly halfway through a television interview last night -- Sen. Trent Lott's latest effort to save himself from the storm he created by endorsing the 1948 segregationist crusade of Strom Thurmond -- Lott briefly stunned his interviewer by announcing his support for affirmative action.
"I'm for that," the Mississippi Republican told Black Entertainment Television newsman Ed Gordon.
"Across the board?" Gordon asked, incredulous.
"Absolutely," Lott replied.
It was the most surprising moment in a very unusual interview, Lott's longest and most detailed attempt to quiet the controversy and hold onto his job as Senate majority leader in the new Congress.
Having spent a week trying to unsay his tribute to Thurmond, Lott broadened his mea culpa yesterday to cover large tracts of his life and career. He said he has been part of an "immoral leadership" in the South that held "wrong and wicked" positions on race.
"You are who you are by virtue of where you are born," Lott explained. In the Mississippi of his youth, he said, "there was a society . . . that was wrong and wicked. I didn't create it, and I didn't really understand it for many years. . . . I had concerns over some of the things I saw. But I didn't act on them when I should have."
Lott described an "evolutionary" process of learning that extended long after the bloodiest battles of the civil rights era were fought. For example, Lott implied that his 1989 vote against a national holiday to honor Martin Luther King Jr. was a matter of ignorance, not bigotry.
"I'm not sure we in America -- certainly not white America, in the South -- fully understood who this man was and the impact he was having on the fabric of society," he said. "I would now vote for a Martin Luther King holiday."
Lott's assertion that he supports a broad range of affirmative action programs may represent an even more recent change of heart. In 1990, Lott voted against a law to restore affirmative action programs struck down by the Supreme Court.
In 1997, Senate Republicans -- with Lott as their leader -- blocked the nomination of Bill Lann Lee to head the civil rights division of the Department of Justice, citing Lee's advocacy of affirmative action.
The following year, Lott voted for an amendment that would have eliminated one of the largest federal affirmative action programs. The program, signed into law by President Ronald Reagan in 1983, directs a percentage of federal construction contracts to minority-owned firms.
"You can get into arguments about timetables and quotas," Lott said in last night's interview -- an apparent allusion to Republican arguments of recent years that "affirmative access" to opportunities is preferable to "affirmative action" programs that set specific targets for minority participation in higher education and on the job.
But Lott offered no specific objection to traditional affirmative action programs, and after the interview was screened for Washington reporters, a spokesman for Lott declined to go into detail on Lott's remarks. "One has to be careful to recognize that affirmative action is not quotas," said Dave Hoppe.
Democrats scoffed at Lott's statements even before the interview was officially shown. "Senator Lott's words don't match his voting record," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). "He voted against affirmative action as recently as 1998, and last year he voted against the first African American confirmed for the southern 4th Circuit [Court of Appeals]. That doesn't sound like someone who supports the policy of affirmative action to me."
The BET interview was taped at a television studio in Mobile, Ala., not far from Lott's home in Pascagoula, Miss. Gordon struck a respectful but persistent tone, while Lott was contrite and generally direct.
For the first time, Lott tried to explain in detail what "problems" he had in mind when he said on Dec. 5 at a tribute for Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican who is retiring from the Senate. Lott noted then that Mississippi had voted for Thurmond for president in 1948, "and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."
He was thinking, he said, of Thurmond's strong anti-communist, pro-defense and fiscally conservative positions. But he agreed that segregation was essential to Thurmond's campaign. "I accept the fact that I made a terrible mistake," Lott said.
He avoided only one question: Gordon asked why Lott had never, until now, discussed in detail his changed opinions on racial matters. Even Thurmond, whose 100th birthday celebration was the scene of Lott's troublesome remarks, long ago repudiated his earlier segregationist views, Gordon noted.
Lott fumbled briefly for an answer, then chose instead to explain his 1992 opposition to the extension of the Voting Rights Act. His current support for election reform, he said, is proof of his commitment to voting rights.
"I believe that I've changed," Lott said several times, and other times he promised to change still more. He cited conversations he has had in recent days with retiring Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), both African Americans, and he embraced Lewis's proposal for "a task force of reconciliation" drawing from both houses of Congress.
"As majority leader, I can move an agenda," Lott promised, "specifically aimed at showing African Americans" his concern for their lives. He will support a bill to provide DNA testing for death row inmates, he said, and will push President Bush's program to steer federal funds to "faith-based" social services -- a popular idea among many African American churches.
"There's an opportunity here," Lott said gamely. "It's a wake-up call."