Character Assassins Must Not Succeed

The controversy now engulfing Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott raises two serious moral questions.

On one hand, there is the issue of racism, a grave evil. The immorality of racial discrimination, whether practiced overtly or covertly, has no place in American life, law or politics. Were Trent Lott guilty of it, Republicans would be right not only to force him to resign as Senate Majority Leader but to kick him out of the Senate and out of their party.

On the other hand, there is the issue of character assassination. Too often in recent decades American political debates have degenerated into conflicts in which members of one party-almost always Democrats-bear false witness against a member of the other party-almost always a Republican. Their aim is to gain tactical political advantage, and to intimidate future adversaries, by maliciously destroying the career and reputation of their quarry.

If Trent Lott is the object of yet another leftist campaign of character assassination, falsely targeting him as a racist, decent people have a duty to resist it.

So which is it? Is the man who has been elected by his Republican Senate colleagues to be their leader for the past seven years really a covert racist? Or are demagogues seeking political gain by smearing him?

Lott is guilty of some things in the current controversy, but he is not a racist.

On December 5, at the 100th birthday celebration for retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond (R.-S.C.), Lott 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.”

On their face, these words raised for many the question of whether Trent Lott intended to endorse the racist, segregationist platform that Strom Thurmond ran on in 1948 when he was the “Dixiecrat” third-party candidate for President. The legitimacy of this question was reinforced by the revelation that Lott had used very similar words at a Reagan for President rally in 1980 at which Thurmond spoke. It was also reinforced by the fact that Lott had once attended a candidates’ forum sponsored by a group whose leaders, the New York Times reports, “expressed extreme racial views.”

Confronted with these legitimate questions, Lott has apologized repeatedly for having unintentionally given the impression he may have been endorsing racist and segregationist views.

Last Monday, Lott said, “A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement.”

On Wednesday, he appeared on Sean Hannity’s radio show, said he regretted “conveying an impression that is not accurate” and apologized again. “I apologize for the words, and I’m sorry that I used words that were insensitive.”

Lott said what many conservatives had thought: that in praising Strom Thurmond he was not thinking of the segregationist views that Thurmond has long since repudiated but of Thurmond’s support for “a strong national defense and economic development and balanced budgets and opportunity.”

“I do reject segregationist policies of the past,” Lott said Wednesday night on CNN’s “Larry King Live.” “They were bad at the time; we’ve made huge progress since then. My state has more African-American elected officials than any other state. We need to come together; we need to be uniters, not dividers.”

So is Lott sincere in these sentiments and apologies?

Retiring Rep. J. C. Watts (R.-Okla.), who spoke directly with Lott about his remarks, said in a statement that Lott was right to admit that his comments on Thurmond “went too far.” But, Watts said, Lott “told me he would like to have his words back, but I took his comments as complimentary humor that often accompanies personal tributes.” They “were as serious as the venue at which they were delivered-a birthday party,” said Watts. “We should accept his apology, get out of our offices and do some holiday shopping.”

These were kind, sensible and courageous words from a man who, unfortunately, for all but two years of his tenure in office was the only African-American Republican serving in either the House or Senate.

Those founding ideals were not political but moral. In the years leading up to the American Revolution, our Founding Fathers repeated over and over again their conviction that a law that did not accord with God’s law was no law at all. This conviction was most ringingly endorsed in the Declaration of Independence, which stated that it was a self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and that “they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights.”

The civil rights movement prevailed under the leadership of Martin Luther King because it forced Americans to confront the undeniable truth that we had violated the principles of this Declaration by denying equal rights to blacks.

We would also betray the principal of equal justice if, knowing Trent Lott is no racist, we surrendered to a campaign designed to destroy him by tarring him as one.