It’s funny how political missteps can destroy some people, while leaving others standing, even smiling.
Thank goodness Republican Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott — one of those once nearly destroyed — proved this week that media’s plunging, twisting knives can be extracted.
No, I’m not a "neocon" — a term I despise — for defending Lott against 4-year-old charges of racial insensitivity. I’m just being fair.
So fair that I’m even understanding of a far more virulent overstatement presented recently by some civil rights icons. I point out this contemporary gaffe to make my point about media character assassinations by way of comparison.
Just days before the recent elections, Congressman John Lewis (D-Ga.) and former Congressman, Ambassador and Mayor Andrew Young lent their voices to a radio ad designed to promote the African-American Democratic candidate for chairman of Fulton County, Georgia’s largest.
The ad partly said and partially hinted that should the Republican candidate be elected, blacks would see their lives returned to the days of being fire-hosed in the streets, among other Jim Crow-type sufferings.
Lewis himself warned voters — mostly black ones targeted by ads on predominantly black radio stations — that their "very lives" depended on their supporting the Democratic candidate.
The ad aired late in the campaign. Maybe that’s why local and national media hardly noticed its excess, even though some of the most liberal local reporters covering the campaign were shocked that few watchdogs noticed the ad. But many who heard it called the ad pure race-baiting. The text and subtext of the radio spot insinuated that a band of 1950s thug policemen and vigilantes would find a way to beat the daylights out of listeners if the Republican were elected.
Again, let’s be fair. People who actually know John Lewis, Andrew Young and current Atlanta Mayor Shirley Franklin, who also contributed to the ad, will attest that they’re all honorable, experienced public servants. Lewis may continue to indulge in the notion that he is still being beaten on the infamous Edmund Pettis Bridge in Alabama during a historic civil rights march decades ago, but nevertheless, he is kind and goodhearted. Mayor Franklin works well with all ethnicities and races in her diverse city, most notably the white business community. And Young is far too worldly to purposely participate in racial harangue.
In truth, this ad was a patchwork of comments that were edited into a distasteful final product — so we could declare it without malice and move on.
Such a balanced assessment wasn’t afforded Trent Lott in 2002, however, when he tried to flatter 100-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond at his birthday party by saying America would have been better off had Thurmond been elected president when he ran in 1948.
Instead, ravenous, righteous media reminded us that Thurmond had run as a segregationist.
Never mind that it had been 54 years previous. It might as well have been 54 days. A pound of flesh was exacted by the liberal inquisition. Worse, many of Lott’s colleagues abandoned him and ran for cover. He had to resign as majority leader of the Senate. It was the most despicable railroading of a public official I’ve ever witnessed.
Now I read media reports of Lott’s return to power. He has scored an upset win over Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee to become minority whip of the U.S. Senate.
One report this week paraphrased Lott’s 2002 Thurmond comments as having said the nation would be "better off had it elected Strom Thurmond president in 1948, when he ran on a segregationist platform."
The quotation marks encase the journalist’s words, but those words might as well have been attributed directly to Lott.
This characterization is like too many others. They take what was meant to be harmless praise to a very old man and turn it into a sort of verbal Klan ride. Lott never even mentioned segregation.
We will never end the media mentality that takes causal leaps to connect Republican or conservative stumblings with abominable intentions. Nor will we ever see liberal misstatements treated in a like manner.
The sweetest redemption for having been lynched by opportunistic media is renewed success. Way to go, Trent Lott. You beat them all.