"Right now we're debating whether the Republican Senate majority leader is a racist who yearns for the days of segregation or just a good ole boy who says a lot of things that make it seem like he's a racist who yearns for the days of segregation." So writes Joshua Marshall, whose talkingpointsmemo.com is must reading for the politically curious, and who, more than anyone else, is responsible for making Trent Lott's offensive remarks the issue they deserve to be.
But this discussion shouldn't really be about Mr. Lott. It should be about how a man who sounds like Mr. Lott came to be leader of the Senate.
Let's be clear that last week's remarks were in no way out of character. On the contrary, they were entirely consistent with Mr. Lott's statements on many other occasions.
The great majority of Americans don't share Mr. Lott's views. For example, he opposed declaring Martin Luther King day a holiday, telling Southern Partisan magazine that "we have not done it for a lot of other people that were more deserving." Most Americans, I think, believe that King was pretty deserving.
So why is Mr. Lott in a position of such power?
The Republican Party's longstanding "Southern strategy" — which rests on appealing to the minority of voters who do share Mr. Lott's views — is no secret. But because the majority doesn't share those views, the party must present two faces to the nation. And therein lies the clue to Mr. Lott's role.
To win nationally, the leader of the party must pay tribute to the tolerance and open-mindedness of the nation at large. He must celebrate civil rights and sternly condemn the abuses of the past. And that's just what George W. Bush did yesterday, in rebuking Mr. Lott.
Yet at the same time the party must convey to a select group of target voters the message — nudge nudge, wink wink — that it actually doesn't mean any of that nonsense, that it's really on their side. How can it do that? By having men who manifestly don't share the open-mindedness of the nation at large in key, powerful positions. And that's why Mr. Bush's rebuke was not followed by a call for Mr. Lott to step down.
Of course, Mr. Lott isn't alone in that role. The Bush administration's judicial nominations have clearly been chosen to give a signal of support to those target Southern voters. A striking example has just emerged: We've learned that Mr. Lott supported the right of Bob Jones University to keep its tax-exempt status even while banning interracial dating; supporting his position was none other than Michael McConnell, a controversial figure recently confirmed as an appeals judge.
Notice, by the way, who really gets served in this charade. The open-minded majority gets ringing affirmations of its principles; but once the dust has settled, the people who agree with Mr. Lott get to keep him as majority leader, and get the judgeships too.
Still, pulling off a two-faced political strategy is tricky. What prevents reporters from explaining to the majority the coded messages that are being sent to the minority?
Good question; I wish I knew the answer. But what's remarkable in the Lott affair is how much he has gotten away with over the years. How many readers ever heard about the flap, several years ago, over Mr. Lott's association with the racist Council of Conservative Citizens? The scandal was actually worse than his remarks last week — but it just got buried. And without the indefatigable efforts of Mr. Marshall and a few other Internet writers, Mr. Lott's recent celebration of segregation would probably have been buried as well.
My guess is that the White House believes it has now done enough. Mr. Lott has received his slap on the wrist; now we can go back to business as usual.
Bear in mind that while Mr. Bush has finally denounced Mr. Lott's remarks, he and his party benefit from the strategy that allows the likes of Mr. Lott to hold so much power. Let's not forget, in particular, the blatant attempts to discourage minority voting in South Dakota, Louisiana, Maryland and elsewhere. It's about time for those of us in the press to pay attention, and let this great, tolerant nation know what's really going on.
Originally published in The New York Times, 12.13.02