Washington — Okay, okay, you all want my reasoned reflections on the Hon. Trent Lott, R.I.P. That is perfectly understandable. I am, after all, one of the country’s few nationally-syndicated African-American columnists of the conservative persuasion, along with Tom Sowell and Walter Williams. I was identified as a member of this rarefied category some years ago by a black militant offended by the opportunism of “the black conservative columnists, Thomas Sowell, Walter Williams, and Emmett Tyrrell.” Ever since, I have tried to be a credit to our little group, even if Tom and Walter merely laugh.
Now turning to the late Senator Lott, he has been condignly punished. I approve. His joke about the wisdom of the Dixiecrats’ 1948 campaign platform, his unconvincing apologies, and his bull-headed insistence on remaining Republican leader of the Senate, are, to borrow a line from a nineteenth century Frenchman, worse than a crime, they are a blunder. As I am neither God nor Senator Lott’s psychotherapist, I am in no position to explain his motives or the condition of his conscience during these torrid days. However, as an observer of politics I can say with confidence that anyone who blunders as egregiously as Lott has blundered is not fit for leadership.
Had Lott been perceptive he would have been swifter to sense the national media’s sudden seizure of conscience. He would have apprehended the coming storm and quickly stressed that his remark was a tasteless joke. He would have apologized abjectly, without any of the stubborn qualifications that made his apologies so incomplete. Then, if the frenzy continued, he would have shown the high character and keen judgment to take a powder, at least from his leadership role in the Republican Party. Republicans simply cannot display insensitivity to any of the Liberals’ handful of sacred (albeit opportunistic) issues, for instance, racism and sexism. Even certain sensitive aspects of the environment are out of bounds for Republicans, for instance, the gaseous effluvia of our noble trees — a touchy subject that cost Governor Ronald Reagan some bad ink in campaign ‘80.
Liberals can be display insensitivity and survive. The Rev. Jackson can speak of “Hymietown.” The Rev. Sharpton can encourage attacks on Jewish businesses. The Hon. Robert Byrd can use the term “white nigger” A black congressman can approve of calling Colin Powell a “house slave.” After the ephemeral hullabaloo subsides the foul-mouthed Liberal remains standing and strutting. Yet, no Republican can get away such vulgarity. Lott should have recognized that our politically-polluted culture (our Kultursmog) maintains a double standard for Liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. The double standard is unfair but not without its redeeming value. In recent years we have seen that a double standard in public life is better than no standard at all. Imagine the coarseness of our society if all public figures were free to act as corruptly as the Rev. Jackson or his parishioner, Bill Clinton.
Lott was a victim of a double standard and of something else that is equally unique to modern American politics. It is popularly known as the “media feeding frenzy.” Actually it is something quite complicated. A politician can manifest certain peculiarities for years, but suddenly conditions change. A sudden change in moral fashions arrives. Or perhaps it is a slow news period. Possibly the politician’s oddity becomes more extreme. Of a sudden a torrent of unfavorable news stories comes down on him. Senator John Tower was destroyed by such a “media frenzy” in the 1980s when nominated as Secretary of Defense. Suddenly his years of very public partying became shocking and a disqualification from office. Senator Robert Packwood suffered similarly. The Clintons were ever fearful that the phenomenon would end Clinton’s presidency, for instance, after the Troopergate stories or the reports of campaign irregularities or the exposure of la Lewinsky or Clinton’s apparently inescapable obstructions of justice and acts in contempt of court.
Clinton survived perhaps because his indiscretions were both crimes and blunders. Society can only, perhaps, focus on one set of indiscretions at a time; Clinton’s cross-disciplinary indiscretions brought society to befuddlement and paralysis. Anyway, Lott’s blunders really have been massive, suggesting something that has yet to be mentioned. Some politicians grow in office; some decline. Under fire an individual has an opportunity to show his true character. The character that Lott has shown is low-grade. The stiff-necked meanness that he demonstrated in his early attempts at apology, which became even more repellent when he fought to maintain his leadership and let fall that he might allow the balance to again shift in the Senate to the Democrats, reveals a baseness that we had not seen before. Under fire Lott showed an ignobleness that is embarrassing.