Sen. Trent Lott and a Troublesome Tie
By Kevin Merida
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 29, 1999
Everywhere he speaks, Julian Bond unfurls the refrain: “Where are the senators?”
He did it in Connecticut, in Florida, in Tennessee, in Louisiana, in Georgia, in Indiana, in Virginia. Named names, too.
“They were there for Khallid Muhammad. Where are they on this?”
Khallid Abdul Muhammad is the former Nation of Islam lieutenant whose hateful rantings to a group of college students were condemned by the U.S. Senate in 1994 on a 97-0 vote. That kind of senatorial unanimity is hard to come by. But who’s going to vote against denouncing racism, bigotry and antisemitism?
So the chairman of the NAACP wants to know where these same senators are when it comes to the Council of Conservative Citizens, which promotes the preservation of the white race and whose Web site features articles warning that the nation is turning into a “slimy brown mass of glop.” Sen. Trent Lott once addressed this group’s national board, welcomed its leaders to Washington, had photos taken with them in his office and then said he didn’t know what they were about. The CCC’s directors wink and nod at that. One of them was a county chairman of Lott’s ’94 reelection campaign. One of them is his uncle.
Asked recently during an impromptu news conference why he couldn’t support a resolution condemning the CCC, Lott’s face conveyed that it was not the kind of question he yearned for.
“I think if anybody wants to have a resolution condemning any groups that advocate white supremacy or racism, then we should support that,” he said. “But when you start naming one group or another group or this group or that group, the list is going to get to be pretty long.”
Lott was reminded that he was one of the 97 senators who condemned the speech by Khallid Muhammad, in which he called the pope a “cracker,” talked of killing white South Africans, demeaned black social commentators and labeled Jews the “blood suckers of the black nation.”
“That was one individual, and then are we going to start doing that repeatedly and naming individuals?”
Lott was asked if it might be seen as hypocritical to condemn Muhammad but not the CCC.
“No, that doesn’t seem hypocritical to me.”
Then the Senate majority leader turned away. Next question, please.
Sometimes in American politics there are stories that start small, grow slowly, never quite die. They become nettlesome because they are about more than a set of easily understood facts. This is one of those tales. It’s about a 57-year-old Republican leader whose defining experiences with race occurred in the segregated South, about the protective culture of the Senate and about how even a symbolic condemnation of bigotry can get mired in politics.
Last week, for instance, the House quarreled passionately about how to put itself on record against racism. Republicans offered language that enveloped the universe of hatemongers but cited no culprits. Specificity, they argued, only made racism smaller. Most Democrats viewed that position as more strategy than heart, a ruse designed to shield Republicans who had been tarnished by their associations with the CCC.
Which brings us back to Lott.
The Council of Conservative Citizens, which was founded in 1985, was not even on the national radar screen before December, when it was disclosed that Rep. Bob Barr (R-Ga.) had spoken before the group. Then The Washington Post revealed that Lott also had addressed the organization and it was reported in Mississippi that he was even a member.
He initially denied any “firsthand knowledge” of the group’s agenda and added through his spokesman that he didn’t consider himself a member (Lott’s uncle says he paid his nephew’s dues). A week later, Lott’s office was told of a 1992 CCC newsletter that pictured the senator delivering a speech to the group’s national board in Greenwood, Miss.: “The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy.”
At that point, Lott renounced the group but continued to decline interviews on the subject. The group claims 15,000 members nationwide and its largest following is in Lott’s home state. Lott had his spokesman explain that he wasn’t aware of the CCC’s views on white supremacy, that he deplored those views and that he wouldn’t have anything to do with the group now or forever more. In January, Lott put out a two-sentence statement saying that use of his name by the CCC “is not only unauthorized – it’s wrong.” Recently, he sent the Anti-Defamation League a letter of further clarification:
“I think of these matters in personal, not political, terms. I could never support – or seek support from – a group that disdained or demeaned my friends, my neighbors, my staffers, or my constituents because of their race or religion. I grew up in a home where you didn’t treat people that way, and you didn’t stand with anyone foolish or cruel enough to do so.”
Receiving CCC leaders in his office, the letter continued, was an innocent act. “I have always made a point of seeing, however briefly, as many of my home-state visitors to Washington as possible. . . . It’s just not possible to research the backgrounds of all these folks, and I don’t think anyone would want me to.”
Lott figured that would end the controversy, but it keeps hanging around. He declined to be interviewed for this article. His press secretary, John Czwartacki, said his boss is not eager to engage in a discussion of his racial views. “He doesn’t see what necessarily good would come of it.”
While other politicians have spoken to the CCC, Lott is by far the most prominent. As the highest-ranking Republican in the land, he has drawn darts from the left and right. Conservative columnist Arianna Huffington called on him “to end any speculation that he has ongoing ties with that group” by introducing a Senate resolution condemning it. Tom Cosgrove, a longtime Democratic consultant, established Citizens for Tolerance, which asked the Senate Ethics Committee to investigate Lott’s CCC ties.
Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, calls the situation “deeply troubling.”
“The issue is the continuity of Senator Lott’s relationship with the CCC and what it says about the group’s access to mainstream power and influence in American life,” he says. “It’s more than just one speech.”
But these criticisms are gnats that Lott dismissively swats away. From his peers, in the regal setting where he makes his living, there has been not a whisper.
Which is why Julian Bond has been on this crusade. It’s not a huge campaign, but he is persistent. One day, he happened to be on the same train from D.C. to Philly as Arlen Specter, and when the train pulled into the station he approached the Republican senator from Pennsylvania.
“What are you going to do about Lott?” Bond asked.
“What about him?” Specter replied. He hadn’t heard about Lott’s ties to the CCC, he said. “I’ll speak to him about it.”
That was Jan. 16. Bond followed up with a letter and a packet of news clippings about the controversy. Never heard a peep back.
Then on Feb. 12, Bond ran into Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in the Detroit airport. He asked McConnell the same question. McConnell also said he was unaware of Lott’s associations. Bond sent him the same clippings. No response.
But he’s not surprised.
“To talk about it, for these senators, is to admit that they themselves are complicit,” says Bond. “For them to condemn one of their fellows is an admission to them that this virus exists among them, and they can’t bring themselves to do that. And I’m not just talking about Republicans, it’s Democrats too.”
Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the former Democratic chairman, hasn’t taken up the campaign. Neither has Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), who, an aide explained, needs Lott’s goodwill if he’s to be successful with his minimum wage and managed care legislation. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.) has been busy, his spokesman says. Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.), who co-sponsored the condemnation of Khallid Muhammad, is worried about being involved in a partisan hunt for Lott’s head.
Pete Domenici (R-N.M.)? “I don’t have any comment on that.”
Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.)? “What they want to censure them for?”
Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.)? “I need to first look at it. I don’t even know where their office is headquartered at.”
What about Lott’s association?
“My understanding is he didn’t know what they stood for,” said Orrin Hatch (R-Utah). “He just thought they were a conservative group. We all sometimes get caught in speaking to groups that we are not fully aware of.”
“I’m not going to take a pot shot at Sen. Lott on this,” said Thad Cochran (R-Miss.).
Specter did have his chat with Lott, just as he promised Bond. “And Trent doesn’t support their ideas.”
Then why not condemn the CCC on the Senate floor?
“My instinct is we would give them more exposure and more publicity,” Specter explained. “The way to beat them is on the battlefield of ideas.”
Hatch said he could support a condemnation if . . .
“If I could get all the information that is available that shows to me it’s a racist group, yeah, you bet your life. But I’d have to have more information than I have now because I really don’t know that much about them.”
“No, let’s not get into that business,” said Bob Bennett (R-Utah).
Weren’t you around when the Senate condemned Khallid Muhammad?
“Yeah, and I probably voted for it. Yeah, yeah, so, okay, I’m not being consistent. Well, I guess on that basis I’ll maybe take a look at it. But I don’t like to go down that road.”
Finally, a question for Richard Lugar (R-Ind.). It is the question Julian Bond keeps asking: Why haven’t more of Lott’s peers challenged him about his ties to the CCC? “Largely, probably, because there are an endless number of issues. If each one of us was busy censuring each other every day on every meeting we have attended or not attended it would be a long day.”
This issue, Lugar added, “has not been a central focus for the Senate or public life in America.”
It’s Not the House
The Senate is the nation’s most prestigious club of lawmakers, a place where personal relationships are important, where members give each other the benefit of the doubt, where personal animosity is frowned upon. Where 97 percent of the members are white.In other words, the Senate is not the House, which is more diverse and more in-your-face. Ask Bob Barr, who spoke to a CCC convention last year and almost got into a fight off the House floor during the debate over impeaching President Clinton. “A bigot” is what Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.) called Barr, ready for a throw-down. Young Kennedy was incensed that Barr had invoked his uncle, the late president, in making his case against Clinton on the House floor.
Nothing like that happens in the Senate. Not anymore. In 1902, two senators got into a fight and the whole body came down hard on them. Senate rules now state that no senator can impugn another senator or his state.
The Senate is a gentleman’s (and now gentlelady’s) palace. Maybe it’s because there are only 100 memberships and the terms are for six years – these people have to work together for a long time. The debates are not as rigidly confined and so the speeches are more civil. The founders conceived of the Senate as “the saucer into which the nation’s passions are poured to cool.” And what subject fuels more passion than race? Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), who now has mythical status in the Senate after 40 years, once spoke for 14 hours and 13 minutes to thwart passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. For a long time, that’s how the Senate dealt with race; senators filibustered the subject to death.
In the Senate, a lawmaker’s peccadilloes are overlooked until they can’t be overlooked any longer.
A case from the history texts: Mississippi Sen. Theodore Bilbo, a Democrat, was known as the “archangel of white supremacy.” But after a while his crude bigotry became so embarrassing to his colleagues that it was partially responsible for the effort to deny him his seat in 1947. Campaigning for reelection in 1946, Bilbo said that “the way to keep the nigger from the polls is to see him the night before.” Glen Taylor, the liberal Democrat from Idaho, figured that was enough. He called for the Senate to investigate his colleague’s behavior because it “reflects seriously on the integrity of this body.”
No one expects the crudeness of Theodore Bilbo in today’s Senate, but it is striking what goes unremarked on. While senators were eagerly condemning Khallid Muhammad’s November 1993 speech, not one of them admonished Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings (D-S.C.) for telling reporters two weeks later: “Everybody likes to go to Geneva. I used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you’d find these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they’d just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva.”
This was the same Hollings who had been quoted by a television reporter as using the word “darkies” in an off-the-air interview (he said he didn’t recall using the word); who had used the term “wetbacks” during his 1984 presidential bid; who had labeled Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition “the blackbow coalition;” who had called then-Sen. Howard Metzenbaum (D-Ohio) “the senator from B’nai B’rith.”
After a mild uproar, Hollings apologized for likening African leaders to cannibals. But that was about as far as he would go. When told that some black leaders had complained of a double standard in how he and Muhammad were treated by the Senate, Hollings replied: “Tell them if they don’t like these jokes, fine.”
A House Member Seizes the Cause
Robert Wexler called Lott’s office on the first day of February. A courtesy, he figured.The Democratic congressman from Florida was about to introduce a resolution condemning “the racism and bigotry espoused by the Council of Conservative Citizens” and urging all members of the House “not to support or endorse” the council “and its views.”
Wexler had enlisted Michael Forbes (R-N.Y.) to help round up Republicans, to try to make the resolution bipartisan. Maybe Lott could carry it in the Senate, demonstrate conclusively that he was opposed to a group whose columnists liken intermarriage to genocide.
Wexler made his pitch to Lott’s chief of staff, William Gotshall.
“I think the gentleman’s reaction was, ‘We can’t stop you from doing it,'” Wexler recalled. “I thought he was joking.”
Except he wasn’t. Lott had no intention of supporting Wexler’s effort, a fact he would make public in time. And this is the point where a non-binding condemnation of racism and bigotry became ensnarled in partisan politics.
Some Republicans saw Wexler’s resolution as an effort to embarrass Lott and their party, whose reputation with blacks and many other minorities is not great. Republican operatives – and indeed Lott’s own spokesman – began talking up Democrats’ links to the CCC, especially House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt’s appearance before a group in St. Louis called the Metro South Citizens Council.
Back in the early ’80s, Gephardt dropped by at least one meeting of the group, which was organized to oppose busing and has been described as a precursor to the Council of Conservative Citizens. When the local group disbanded, many of its members joined the CCC. During his 1988 presidential campaign, Gephardt couldn’t recall his visit but said he didn’t support any group “that expresses any kind of racial motives or sentiments.” He said he wasn’t aware of Metro South’s positions.
“It wasn’t the CCC initially,” said Gephardt spokeswoman Laura Nichols. “When it became apparent to Gephardt that they were the CCC, he denounced them.”
The Wexler-Forbes resolution had 150 sponsors, including 13 Republicans. Then came the resolution the House debated Tuesday. It was sponsored by J.C. Watts (R-Okla.), the only black Republican in Congress, who had grown tired of “all the tit for tat,” his spokeswoman said. Instead of singling out the CCC, Watts’s resolution “denounces all those who practice or promote racism, anti-Semitism, ethnic prejudice or religious intolerance.”
Wexler railed that there was no generic resolution rushed to the floor when Khallid Muhammad made his speech. “So I guess what it all comes down to is when it’s a black person who is racist it’s all right for Congress to condemn him, but when it’s a white group Congress does nothing.”
Watts countered that Wexler had never come to the floor to defend him when “I had racist attacks made against me” in Oklahoma. Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) countered that he didn’t recall Watts defending him when he was attacked by the CCC.
And so on.
Both sides in the debate invoked Martin Luther King Jr., accused each other of hypocrisy, told stories about their own experiences with race and left the chamber divided.
Though the Watts resolution was supported by 254 members and opposed by 152, it failed. A two-thirds majority vote was required because the resolution was brought up under a parliamentary procedure commonly used to allow quick passage of noncontroversial issues.
And race is never noncontroversial.
Watts will continue to pursue passage of his resolution. Wexler is still looking for a Senate sponsor for his. Perhaps he should try Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.).
When told of Lott’s argument in opposing a condemnation solely of the CCC, Daschle is incredulous.
“Well, God forbid we single out a group that has the record it has. . . . I think it’s important for us to disassociate ourselves, to criticize the actions and the words and the positions of groups that have no place in American politics today. . . . And resolutions are one way of doing it, and I think for that reason there is some merit – sight unseen.”
Lott’s Uncle Arnie
To understand why Lott continues to be dogged by the CCC controversy, it is useful to examine the way in which he has dealt with race throughout his life. He was raised in segregated Mississippi and never had to – or bothered to – confront the South’s system of racial inequality in the 1950s and ’60s.The son of a shipyard worker and a teacher who became a bookkeeper, Lott has said that race wasn’t that big a factor growing up. Blacks and whites went to separate schools. And when integration came, “It wasn’t a big happening,” he told U.S. News & World Report in 1997. “It just happened one day, and we moved on.”
Lott was a campus leader at the University of Mississippi when federally enforced integration triggered a riot there. It was the fall of 1962, during Lott’s senior year, and the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered Ole Miss to admit James Meredith as its first black student. Gov. Ross Barnett fanned the opposition, and when Meredith arrived, escorted by U.S. marshals, violence broke out. Two were killed and scores injured.
Lott, a cheerleader and head of the Sigma Nu fraternity, was returning from a football game with Kentucky. He was not a supporter of integration but wanted nothing to do with the violence. By most accounts, he helped herd students into the frat house and off campus in an effort to avoid the turmoil.
“Yes, you could say that I favored segregation then, I don’t now,” Lott was quoted as saying in a Time magazine piece in 1997. “The main thing was, I felt the federal government had no business sending in troops to tell the state what to do.”
“National issues and politics and racial issues were not on my radar screen at the time,” he told U.S. News. “I looked back on it years later and wondered if it had more effect on me at the time than I realized.”
Lott’s college roommate, Allen Pepper, said that he and Lott never discussed racial inequality, that they felt the process of integration was something “we had no control over” and that they were more consumed with their extracurricular activities.
“We had a championship football team, to tell you the truth,” said Pepper, “and that was the thing we were concerned about.”
In 1968, a year after graduating from law school, Lott joined the staff of an avowed segregationist congressman with whom he developed a father-son relationship. William Colmer, a Pascagoula Democrat, opposed public housing, welfare and civil rights legislation. Lott was his administrative assistant. After Colmer’s retirement in 1972, Lott switched parties and ran successfully for his Democratic mentor’s seat.
As a lawmaker, Lott’s legislative record makes civil rights leaders’ toes curl.
Though he represents the state with the highest percentage of African Americans in the nation, he lobbied the Reagan administration in 1981 to restore tax breaks to segregated private schools. He twice voted against extending the 1965 Voting Rights Act, against the federal holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr., against funding the King holiday commission, against continuing the 1964 Civil Rights Act, against numerous affirmative action bills.
The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights has never given Lott higher than a 15 percent grade (the equivalent of an F) on its legislative report card. Gordon Lee Baum, founder and executive director of the CCC, has said his organization agrees with Lott 95 percent of the time.
The CCC’s leaders describe their organization as a mainstream conservative group that has positions not only on race, but on gun control, abortion, prayer in school and wasteful government spending, which is what Lott says he was invited to speak about in the first place.
“You have a southern white conservative Republican,” explains Lott spokesman Czwartacki. “What’s absent there is Lott expressing some kind of hateful, bigoted view. You’ve got a bunch of circumstantial things of someone growing up in the segregated South. You risk going too far with it.”
“Trent Lott knows conservative circles in Mississippi. He didn’t get to be majority leader in the Senate by being politically naive,” says Neil McMillen, a history professor at the University of Southern Mississippi in Hattiesburg and author of a book about the old White Citizens Councils. “It’s disingenuous for Trent Lott to say he didn’t know what the CCC stood for when he spoke before it.”
Regardless of his disavowals, the old segregationists love Lott.
He is not one to apologize for the South’s past. In 1978, as a House member, he led the effort to return citizenship posthumously to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As chairman of his party’s 1984 platform committee, he proclaimed that “the spirit of Jefferson Davis” lives in the document of principles and positions guiding the GOP. In 1989, he refused to cosponsor a congressional resolution designating June 21 as Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner Day after the three civil rights workers murdered 25 years earlier in Mississippi.
“Right now, Trent’s got to do what he’s got to do,” says the CCC’s Baum. “I’m not going to bad-mouth Trent. We’re realistic. We’re not stupid. They’re trying to bloody up Trent.”
“Trent is working-class Mississippi,” adds Baum. “Trent’s uncle is real old South.”
That would be Lott’s uncle Arnie Watson, who turns 90 in June. A former state senator, he was at one time head of the Carroll County chapter of now-defunct segregationist White Citizens Councils. Carroll County is where Lott spent his childhood before the family moved to Pascagoula. The CCC is active there now, and Watson is a board member.
Watson says it was he who paid Lott’s CCC dues and put him on the rolls as an “honorary member.” Lott says he doesn’t consider himself a member, but didn’t object to that characterization when it appeared in the Jackson Clarion-Ledger, the state’s largest newspaper, just after the November elections. The front-page article featured Gov. Kirk Fordice chastising Lott for abandoning conservative principles.
“It wasn’t objected to because it wasn’t noticed,” said Czwartacki.
Watson said he hasn’t discussed the CCC with Lott since the controversy erupted. He used to sit with his nephew and talk politics on the porch. Though many of the South’s old segregationists have been reconstructed over time, Watson’s views haven’t changed much.
Blacks are a “different kind of people and don’t see things the same way, so they can have their own organizations and whites can have theirs,” Watson says. “They should have been left in their native country.” He means Africa.
“This mixing races, the Lord didn’t intend for it to be that way.”
“To say the least,” said Czwartacki, “Lott doesn’t hold those views and wouldn’t agree with his uncle.”
Finally, here’s what Lott says in his letter to the Anti-Defamation League’s Abraham Foxman.
“Perhaps the most unfortunate aspect of this entire episode has been the damage done by the CCC’s misuse of the word ‘conservative.’ There is nothing conservative about the exclusion of any citizen from the mainstream of American life.”