Washington It was almost endearingly ingenuous of Trent Lott, the serial apologizer, to say in major apology No. 4 - the tone-deaf news conference-cum-soliloquy in Pascagoula, Miss. - that his remarks at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party should be excused because he was "winging it." Meaning he was talking without a script when he said how sad it was that Thurmond lost to Harry S Truman in the 1948 presidential election, thereby leading to the Troubles, aka the civil rights revolution. It is dangerous for Republicans to have a leader who not only cannot be trusted without a script but who is utterly unembarrassed about citing scriptlessness as an exculpation for any embarrassment he causes.
During major apology No. 3, on "Larry King Live," Lott said he did not remember who the Republican nominee had been in 1948. A hint: The famous Chicago Tribune headline brandished by Truman did not say "Thurmond Defeats Truman."
Major apology No. 2 was issued on Sean Hannity's radio show, in an attempt to recover from major apology No. 1, in which Lott said he had used "a poor choice of words" about "discarded policies." On the Hannity show Lott said he meant that Thurmond was the proper presidential timber in 1948 because of Thurmond's stance on national defense.
But by 1948 - the Berlin airlift, the Truman Doctrine of aid to Greece and Turkey and other nations menaced by communism - Truman's Cold War defense stance was robust. And the platform of the States' Rights Democratic Party, aka Dixiecrats, under whose banner Thurmond ran, did not mention defense - other than the defense of the South against what Thurmond called the "social intermingling of the races."
There is no convincing evidence that Lott is a racist. And his voting record, which reveals a robust appetite for legislative pork, proves that he has no allegiance to the Dixiecrats' theory that the Constitution's enumerated powers fence the federal government off from intervention in important spheres of American life. Lott is a legislative mechanic with negligible ideological ballast. He also is (as Churchill said of John Foster Dulles) a bull who carries his china shop around with him.
Remember his 1997 meddling in the matter of Kelly Flinn, the Air Force lieutenant who lied to her commanding officer and investigators about two affairs she had, one with the civilian husband of a junior enlisted woman? She violated a military fraternization regulation and a direct written order. Lott said Air Force plans to discipline Flinn were "unfair" and that "at the minimum she ought to get an honorable discharge." He did not suggest what medal - Bronze Star? Silver? - might properly enhance the minimum.
Surely Lott's fate was sealed Sunday morning, less than an hour after Sen. Don Nickles, the Oklahoma Republican, told ABC's "This Week" at 8 a.m. that Lott might have jeopardized "his ability to enact our agenda and speak to all Americans" and "I hope we can have an opportunity to choose" from among the "several outstanding senators who are more than capable of effective leadership." Before 9 a.m., wire service stories were quoting a foolishly pugnacious Lott staffer charging Nickles with a "cynical exercise of opportunism."
And Monday's Washington Post reported that by Sunday Lott's "allies were examining Nickles' voting record to try to show that it smacks of intolerance on issues important to African-Americans." So Lott's allies are playing the race card - the card played by race-baiting liberals.
What might those "issues important to African-Americans" be? Support for welfare reform? For conservative judges? Opposition to racial preferences? This is precisely why Lott has made himself intolerable as the Republicans' leader: He has given ammunition to those, and even seems to have joined those, who charge that anything - including important components of the conservative agenda - opposed by the decayed remnant of the civil rights movement must reflect "intolerance," meaning regnant racism.
By Sunday morning, Sen. Joseph Biden, a Delaware Democrat and a quick study, had his party's line down pat: "If the president decides on matters relating to social policy that he is going to, you know, take a road that is - that is viewed as being insensitive on race issues, then it's going to be a big problem." Lott helps make the vague charge of "insensitivity" the trump card in policy argument.
Republican senators will soon meet. They will not leave the room to tell the public that, after calm deliberation, they have decided that Lott is the best leader they could find in the room.