For years, I have used this opening line on the lecture circuit: "I'm happy to be here from Washington, D.C., where the only politicians with convictions are in prison. "
Rarely has there been an occasion to demonstrate the reality of this cheap laugh line more than in Sen. Trent Lott's attempt to hold on to his leadership post.
Appearing Monday night on Black Entertainment Television (BET), Lott seemed willing to reverse any previously held position and abandon any "conviction " if it would allow him to remain majority leader.
For example, though he has consistently opposed affirmative action programs in Congress, on BET Lott says he now supports affirmative action "across the board." Ever the politician, Lott stopped short of embracing "timetables and quotas," which are at the heart of affirmative action.
The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday? Lott, who opposed it when it was debated nearly 20 years ago (he said it was too costly to the federal government and there are already too many holidays), now says he would vote for it.
Lott pleaded ignorance about the power of King's civil rights message. "I'm not sure we in America, certainly not white America, people in the South, fully understood who this man was, the impact he has had on the fabric of this country," he told BET interviewer Ed Gordon. Only someone totally blind and deaf could have missed it.
Lott has pledged to go on tour with black Democrats, apparently to get his "mind right," to borrow a phrase from the film "Cool Hand Luke." This can only mean that Lott, if he survives the challenge to his leadership, will have to pay high extortion fees to win the praise of the liberal civil rights establishment. Liberal Democrats see an opportunity to squeeze concessions from Lott to advance their agenda. They will never give him their blessing, but they will give the Republican Party plenty of grief, erode its base and regain control of Congress when Republican voters are turned off, which is Democrats' ultimate goal.
This is why Lott must not continue as leader. He will be used as a tool to advance the liberal Democrat agenda, not the agenda of President Bush and his fellow Senate Republicans. He will always have to prove himself to others who oppose Republican policies, and this is what makes him damaged goods.
Lott's lightning "conversion" on racial "sensitivity" has been likened by some to Paul's conversion on the road to Damascus. There are several differences. Paul didn't ask to keep his job as the Pharisees' persecutor-in-chief of Christians. He abandoned privilege, power and prestige, counting all of that "garbage " compared to the new life to which he had been called. Paul also separated himself from his former colleagues in order to identify with his new ones.
Lott's sincerity may be genuine, but the weakened position in which he has put himself and his party means he cannot be an effective Republican leader in the Senate. He will be forced to constantly prove that he is a new man and the only proof his liberal opponents will accept is if he votes in favor of their issues. Otherwise, his past remarks and actions will be thrown up in his face and his honesty questioned.
The definition of pandering well describes what Lott is now doing: "to provide gratification for others' desires." In our poll-driven, focus-group politics, the number of politicians willing to stand on principle and explain their convictions is in decline. This entire episode reveals what some conservatives have long thought about Lott (who is not alone in this) -- that when it comes to a choice between principles and the power and perks that go with the job, he is willing to sacrifice the principles. If his fellow Senate Republicans keep him as Leader, they will have sacrificed their own principles, ignored the convictions of those who voted for them and will not deserve their new majority status.
Cal Thomas is a columnist for Tribune Media Services.