Maybe Trent Lott made the right decision when he resigned as Majority Leader. Maybe he is the most racist thing since they started chopping down trees to make the logs for Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Maybe he should have stayed home from Strom Thurmond’s hundredth birthday party, and said he went — secure in the conviction that Thurmond could not remember if he came or not. Or maybe he rejected a racist past and had the biggest conversion since the miracle of the fishes and the loaves. But one thing we do know: You should never listen to what people say, you should look at what people do.
If history was made by what people said, or even what they privately thought or believed, rather than what they did, the world would be a different place — particularly for minority groups, and especially Jews and people of color.
President Truman, over much opposition and hostility of the major powers, caused the United States to recognize the state of Israel. The true Truman did not possess similar attitudes toward Jews.
“Throughout his life, Truman was prone in private to use anti-Semitic language that belied his growth as a national figure. To the private Truman, New York City was a ‘kiketown’ and greedy poker players “screamed like a Jew merchant.” (See Michael Beschloss, The Conquerors.)
President Roosevelt was beloved — “revered” is perhaps a more accurate word — by both Jews and African-Americans. Yet his actions contributed to the deaths of many Jews. On June 1, 1939, he refused to allow the ship The St. Louis, crammed with 917 refugees from Germany, to land in the U.S., thereby forcing it to return its passengers to Europe and the waiting ovens in Nazi concentration camps.
Late in the war, Churchill turned to the U.S. — the only country with sufficient air power to accomplish the job — to bomb the railroads that delivered victims to the death camps. “There is no doubt that this is probably the greatest and most horrible crime ever committed in the history of the world…”
Roosevelt turned a deaf ear to Churchill’s request, secure in the knowledge that Jews voted for him 83-90%, so that he need not do anything further to appease this already captive electorate. Roosevelt shamelessly told his Jewish Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau that America was a Protestant country and Jews were only here “by sufferance.”
Nixon was not the first President to install secret tape recorders in the Oval Office. Roosevelt preceded him by thirty years. There is in existence a scratchy tape of Roosevelt in the White House receiving a delegation of African-Americans lead by the union leader, A. Philip Randolph. Their mission: To convince Roosevelt into allowing Negro sailors to do something more than be cooks and stewards in the Navy. Roosevelt’s answer: basically that they have rhythm, so they can form bands.
Roosevelt was the first, and thankfully only, President to appoint a Ku Klux Klan member — Hugo L. Black — to the United States Supreme Court. Black served on the court for an astonishing 34 years. While on the subject of the Ku Klux Klan, it should also be noted that Democratic Senator Robert Byrd had been a member of that organization, as well as having been caught using the word “nigger” on television, a word that, apart from having the ability to free O.J. Simpson, is considered despicable by the rest of the English-speaking world.
In the Yom Kippur war, Israel with its planes shot from the sky and its tanks destroyed on the ground by Arab forces trained and supplied by the Soviets with advanced weapons systems, was trembling on the brink of extinction. President Nixon came to its rescue with an airlift of tanks and aircraft replacement. Henry Kissinger, in his memoirs, related how Nixon repeatedly demanded that the supplies be “in the air” on the way to Israel. This, paradoxically, was the same Richard Nixon whose 1971 tapes made on a hidden recorder revealed, according to the Anti-Defamation League National Director, Abraham H. Foxman, “the ugly stereotypes of a classic anti-Semite.” Nixon wanted the IRS to audit “the big Jewish contributors to the Democrats.” He repeatedly referred to “rich Jews,” belief in a “Jewish cabal,” and a made reference to Jews who “are stealing in every direction.”
HILLARY CLINTON HAS JOINED IN the pileup on Senator Lott. “I’m looking to see what kind of new leadership the Republican Party will have…in terms of equal justice under the law.” Hmmm, what about equal justice for Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, Juanita Broaddrick, Elizabeth Ward Gracen, and Dolly Kyle Browning, all sexually used by her husband, who then lied and even committed perjury in connection with at least some of these women. Between kissing Mrs. Arafat and looking for missing subpoenaed records, Hillary Clinton defended the perjurer and blamed it all on “a vast right-wing conspiracy.”
It is quite true that Lott showed up for Strom Thurmond’s hundredth birthday party. Thurmond sat in his wheelchair after being brought over from his home in Walter Reed Hospital, looking like an embalmed plum. C-Span recorded the panegyric flowing over the birthday boy who seemed to be as alert as the main course on a plate when diners sitting around the table rave about the food. The guests were effusive in their compliments, each trying to outdo the other in their praise, and then Senator Lott made his foolish remarks.
Slowly the outrage and call for his resignation grew, the epicenter of all the complaints being Senator Lott’s prior history of grievous actions and words. Notwithstanding having a past strewn with the debris of racist nonsense, from both Democrats and Republicans, there was an acknowledgment that the Trent Lott of today does not act in a bigoted or prejudiced fashion.
Obvious hypocrisy and political opportunism put aside, if we are to punish people for what they used to be, then rationally the reverse should also be true. If someone in the political life of the nation is guilty of an inappropriate or unacceptable act today, but has a felicitous past, should we simply ignore what he has done by saying, “Oh well, in the past he was a fine fellow”?
Such reasoning is the proper province of a judge sentencing a criminal, but it should not be the dispositive factor in valuing someone’s present value to society when an objectionable comment is made, however inappropriate or even stupid.
Isn’t it time we should all chill out? Sometimes a cigar is just a smoke. An off-hand comment is usually only that and nothing more. And if we personally had to judge a man by what he said as opposed to what he did, we would always choose the latter over the former — but then we are not politicians.
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