A Man out of Time: Trent Lott and the GOP Grew Up Together in the South. They Both Have a Painful Secret

By Meacham, Jon | Newsweek, December 23, 2002 | Go to article overview

A Man out of Time: Trent Lott and the GOP Grew Up Together in the South. They Both Have a Painful Secret


Meacham, Jon, Newsweek


Byline: Jon Meacham

It was just a quick stop, at a store on a campaign trip through the Northeast more than a dozen years ago. Trent Lott, then a Mississippi congressman about to make his move for the Senate, was visiting a state for a Republican candidate. When Lott walked in, he asked: "Why aren't there any black people here?" a source who has spent time with him in unguarded moments tells NEWSWEEK. Nervously, someone explained that this was not the most diverse of regions. "Not even behind the counter?" Lott said. Warming to his punch line, Lott added: "We'd be happy to send you up some if you need any"--and then chuckled. Asked about the incident last week, Lott told NEWSWEEK: "I can't imagine when I would have done that. I don't believe I did that. I deny that I did that, but you know I can't deny every word or that I may have been in the area." If anything "close to that was uttered, that would have been totally out of order," Lott said.

He appeared to sense that the remark would belong to a world that, before last week, many Americans hoped was long gone, or, if not gone, certainly not the one inhabited by the majority leader of the United States Senate.

To the former Ole Miss cheerleader accustomed to the hyperbolic flattery and clubbiness of the Senate, his words at Strom Thurmond's 100th-birthday party may have seemed just another tip of the hat to the old man. "I was winging it," Lott said in his latest apology last Friday afternoon in Pascagoula. "I was too much into the moment." On wing at the birthday party, he said: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." That Thurmond ran on a segregationist ticket, fired by fury at Harry Truman's rather mild civil-rights measures, was not explicitly mentioned. Lott thought the affair "lighthearted," but he should have remembered his Faulkner. "The past is never dead," the Mississippi novelist once wrote. "It's not even past."

President George W. Bush was eloquent in distancing himself from Lott last week, evoking Lincoln--the only port a Republican president has in this kind of storm. The problem with making the Party of Lincoln defense convincing is that race lies near the heart of the GOP's sway over the South. When Thurmond walked out of the feverish 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he headed south, where he named Mississippi's segregationist governor, Fielding Wright, as his Dixiecrat running mate. In that moment and in the ensuing campaign for "states' rights"--code for "segregation"--Thurmond carried four states and started building the foundations of the party that would ultimately send Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and two George Bushes to the White House.

The power of Southern Republicanism is a political reality that Bush and his guru Karl Rove understand very well. The painful legacy on which it is built, however, is something they would just as soon we all forget. Lott's effusive birthday remark has cast a stark light on the grimy engine room of the post-World War II GOP and inadvertently drawn attention to his own history, one marked by nods to a neo-South of Confederate and "separate but equal" sentimentalists.

Chester Trent Lott Jr. was 7 years old when Thurmond's States Rights Democrats set up shop in the Heidelberg Hotel in Jackson, Miss., and he is a child of that milieu, his own life and career intertwined with the rise of the Republican Party in the country's most influential political region. Lott's grandfathers and an uncle were local officeholders, and he remembers sitting under the front porch listening to them talk politics. The son of a shipyard pipe fitter and a devout, piano-playing teacher who'd been raised in the Church of Christ, Lott has spent his life obsessed with bringing order to chaos, which he first tried to do in his childhood, one rocked by his daddy's drinking. …

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