Lott struggles to keep job, seeks 'forgiveness'

Saturday, December 14, 2002

WASHINGTON -- Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott apologized Friday for reopening old racial wounds with remarks on segregation, and asked "forbearance and forgiveness" as he struggled to quell a controversy that threatened his hold on power.

Apologetic and defiant by turns, Lott emphatically rejected Democratic calls for his resignation. "I'm not about to resign for an accusation for something I'm not," he said, adding that none of his Senate GOP colleagues had suggested he do so.

"Let me be clear: Segregation and racism are immoral," Lott said at a hotel in Pascagoula, Miss. "I lived through the troubled times in the South, and along with the South, I have learned from the mistakes of our past."

Lott also spoke approvingly of comments President Bush made on the subject Thursday. "Recent comments by Sen. Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," Bush said.

Within an hour of the news conference, several GOP senators issued statements of support for their embattled leader. Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the incoming GOP whip, said, "I believe the American people will accept his apology and want us now to move forward together."

Uproar over comments

Lott, 61 and in line to become Senate majority leader in January, triggered an uproar last week when he said that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond in 1948 on the pro-segregationist Dixiecrat ticket. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years either," Lott added in remarks at Thurmond's 100th birthday.

At the news conference Friday, Lott said he was "winging it" with those words, saying they were not meant to convey support for racial segregation. Rather, he said, they marked an effort to help "an elderly gentleman to feel good. There were no venal thoughts in my mind."

"Segregation is a stain on our nation's soul. There is no other way to describe it," Lott said. He said Thurmond, over his long career, came to renounce "repugnant views" on race. "That said, I apologize for reopening old wounds and hurting so many Americans."

Lott stepped before microphones eight days after uttering comments that sent ripples of political concern into the White House and raised questions about his own ability to retain his position of power.

In the days since, Democrats have heaped criticism on Lott. One official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Senate Democrats were considering whether to call for a formal censure vote of the GOP leader, a suggestion first made Thursday by the Congressional Black Caucus.

Several Republicans -- Bush most prominent among them -- also sharply criticized Lott's statements. While the White House has not urged Lott to resign, GOP political aides have expressed fear about the effect of his remarks on efforts by Bush and others to expand the Republican share of the black vote.

Thus far, two Democratic senators -- John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin -- have called on Lott to step down as leader. But the Mississippian serves at the sufferance of fellow Republican senators. Whatever their discomfort, none of them has yet called for his ouster, and Lott has worked hard behind the scenes to shore up support.

At the same time, the political stakes were high as Lott prepared for the news conference in Pascagoula, Miss., a city with an airport and a high school named for him. Some Republicans, including outgoing GOP whip Don Nickles of Oklahoma, maintained a conspicuous silence on the controversy.

A senior White House official said Lott's apology was important -- and different from previous ones -- because it would be his first on camera. Senior White House aides privately prodded Lott to make a public mea culpa; Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., publicly urged him to do so.

At the news conference, Lott made multiple denunciations of the system of segregation that was prevalent when he was a young man in his native South. "I have asked and am asking for people's forbearance and forgiveness as I continue to learn from my own mistakes and as I continue to grow as both a person and a leader," he said.

While Republicans have squirmed since the controversy erupted, Democrats did what they could to raise questions about Lott's views on civil rights in an attempt to maximize the political pain for him and his party.

With Lott speaking favorably of the Dixiecrat campaign of 1948, for example, Democrats turned up a document marked as a sample ballot distributed to Mississippi voters that year, when Thurmond ran as a segregationist alternative to Democratic President Harry Truman.

A vote for Truman's presidential electors, the sample ballot said, amounts to a vote for "passage of Truman's so-called civil rights program in the next Congress." That means, it added, that "anti-lynching and anti-segregation proposals will become the law of the land and our way of life in the South will be gone forever."

In an ironic postscript, Lott began his day on vacation in Key West, Fla. -- a location that Truman chose for his vacations while serving as president.

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