At Large

Lott Without the Frenzy

He has never been much of an ideologue, and as a senator he has been known mostly for his helmet-like head of hair and his devotion to the shipyards in Pascagoula.

By 12.17.02

Send to Kindle

As apologies go -- his fifth, actually -- this one wasn't half-bad. It is unlikely he changed anyone's mind, but he probably didn't expect to, and at least he kept his dignity. In an interview on the Black Entertainment Network on Monday night, Trent Lott said he was repentant, chagrined and embarrassed by "years of misbehavior." It was unclear whether he meant his own misbehavior, or that of the South in general, but whichever it was, Lott insisted that he had changed. His thinking, he said, had evolved, and he was not the man he was. If he had it to do all over, Lott said, he would even have voted to make Martin Luther King's birthday a national holiday.

But it was unlikely any of this mattered. Everyone involved in the Lott dispute seems to have staked out a position in advance. After the Lott interview, for example, BET asked Gregory Meeks, a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, about his reaction. Meeks said, more or less, that once a racist always a racist, and that Lott had said nothing of importance.

"What could he have said?" Jaque Reid, the BET anchor, asked.

"He could have acknowledged the past," Meeks replied.

Which, of course, was exactly what Lott had just been doing. Meeks, however, would have none of that, and neither, apparently, would Ms. Reid. An injudicious BET camera showed her nodding vigorously at Meeks, presumably egging him on.

Consequently it's hard not to feel at least some sympathy for Lott. He has never been much of an ideologue, and as a senator he has been known mostly for his helmet-like head of hair and his devotion to the shipyards in Pascagoula. But conservatives who have preached about, and believe in, a color-blind society now want him to step down as Senate majority leader. The nakedly ambitious Don Nickles yearns to replace him. If Lott does go, however, the White House seems to prefer the more personable Bill Frist.

The most remarkable thing about the Lott dispute, however, is how it has been media driven. There is a feeding frenzy in spades. It began on Dec. 5, at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party, when lifelong Mississippian Lott said, "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him…And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems, either."

This was a dumb remark, of course. Lott seemed to be implying that America would have been better off with Dixiecrat segregation. Nonetheless even Tom Daschle brushed the dumb remark off; he said that Lott had merely "misspoke."

But as Wlady Pleszczynski noted in "The Conason Prize" on the Prowler last week, one Joshua Marshall picked up on Lott's dumb remark in his online Talking Points Memo, and wouldn't let it go. Just as Bill Clinton and Al Gore had said, he wrote, the mainstream press was now a mouthpiece for conservatives; it was ignoring Lott's supposedly racist comment.

But as Wlady pointed out, conservative websites and writers --Instapundit, Virginia Postel, David Frum, Jonah Goldberg, Front Page Magazine, among them -- were already denouncing Lott. Indeed since then conservative criticism of Lott has grown and grown. Lott has few journalistic supporters on the right.

At the same time the mainstream press can't seem to get enough of the Lott story, either. Lott is on the cover this week of both Time and Newsweek. Meanwhile the New York Times is simply beside itself. When Lott held a news conference in Pascagoula last Saturday, the Times not only put the story on page one; it ran a full page of excerpts from the news conference.

This was the same day, incidentally, that the European Union decided to bar Moslem Turkey from membership, and keep Europe a Christian enclave and safe for Pat Robertson to visit. The E.U. decision, one of the most important it has ever made, and just possibly one of the most short-sighted, did not, however, make it to the Times's page one. The Times was too caught up with Lott.

When the media feeding frenzy will end nobody knows, and there are no signs of it abating. On Tuesday, the day after his BET interview, the Times had two stories about Lott on page one. On the other hand, one must give credit where credit is due. The Times cleared its throat in a story on an inside page about conservative opposition to Lott and reported this:

"The responses by conservatives have provided a marked contrast to the contention -- put forth most recently by former President Bill Clinton and former Vice President Al Gore -- that the nation's conservative news media acts as a monolithic Republican support system."

In fact, Clinton and Gore said more than that, but the Times at least had made a start.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

John Corry is a former New York Times media critic and reporter.