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The Senate's good old boys' club of racists
The mask slips off

January 3, 2003 | Page 8

SEN. TRENT Lott (R-Miss.) got canned last month as the Republicans' leader in the Senate after he praised Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) for his racist campaign for president in 1948. The Senate majority leader-to-be tried to claim that his comments were a slip of the tongue. It didn't work--and eventually, the Bush White House cut him loose.

Now the Republicans want to pretend that they've taken a stand against racism. Nothing could be further from the truth. Lott and Thurmond are far from the only politicians in Washington who built their careers on support for racial inequality--whether stated baldly, or with more veiled "code words."

ELIZABETH SCHULTE shows how Lott let the mask slip--exposing not only himself, but the racism at the core of the U.S. political system.

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"I WANT to say this about my state," Trent Lott declared in a toast to Strom Thurmond at the bigot's 100th birthday party. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

Sure. "Problems" like civil rights for African Americans. That was the whole purpose of Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign as head of the Dixiecrat Party--the Southern segregationist alternative to the national Democratic Party. The Thurmond campaign was the public, political expression of the brutality and assassinations carried out against Blacks in the dead of the night by the Ku Klux Klan.

And for all his stuttering about what he "really meant," Trent Lott knows that full well. After all, he's given the same speech before. According to the Washington Post, Lott said the same thing about Thurmond publicly in 1980--at a campaign rally for Ronald Reagan.

No doubt Lott has used the same rhetoric as a longtime booster of the Council of Conservative Citizens, the modern-day version of the racist white Citizens' Councils that terrorized civil right activists in the South.

Then there's Lott's loyal work for Bob Jones University, whose ban on interracial dating he defended in an amicus brief in 1981. Or go back a little further, to his alma mater, the University of Mississippi, where Lott fought to keep his frat house lily white--when he wasn't busy hoisting the Confederate flag as lead cheerleader.

Lott was a senior in 1962 when racists rioted against the admission of James Meredith, the first African American student to attend Ole Miss. "Yes, you could say I favored segregation then," Lott told Time magazine in 1997.

So it was hardly a "slip of the tongue" when Lott praised Thurmond's segregationist presidential campaign. After all, Lott learned to use racism as a political tactic from his mentor, William Colmer, the old-school Mississippi segregationist whose seat in Congress Lott took over in 1972. Colmer was one of a handful of members of Congress to join up with the Dixiecrats when Thurmond made his run for president.

The Thurmond campaign appealed to racist Southern voters who were fleeing their traditional party, the Democrats, after it adopted a pro-civil rights position at its national convention. Sometimes, Thurmond and the segregationists couched their positions in terms of "states' rights"--the claim that the federal government had no right to tell Southern states what to do. But usually, the message was more straightforward. "On the question of social intermingling of the races, our people draw the line," Thurmond declared.

The Dixiecrats' 1948 campaign was a declaration that the Southern political establishment would do everything it could to resist civil rights and uphold the status quo of Jim Crow segregation. The South's apartheid system was only smashed after a massive social upheaval--the civil rights movement of the 1950s and '60s.

Since the 1970s, the Republican Party--now represented in the Senate by none other than Strom Thurmond--have been following a "Southern strategy" designed to scoop up the racist voters angered by the Democrats' identification with civil rights. Thus, Ronald Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a call for "states' rights" in Philadelphia, Miss., the site of the Klan's 1964 killings of three civil rights workers.

Eight years later, George Bush Sr. used a racist attack ad featuring a released Black rapist to attack his Democratic opponent as "soft on crime." That's Lott's Republican Party. And no matter how much he denies it, that's Bush Jr.'s party, too.

Racists in the corridors of power

LOTT AND Thurmond aren't the only bigots in Washington. When Bill Frist takes over as Senate majority leader this month, his replacement as chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee will be Sen. George Allen (R-Va.). As Virginia governor, Allen issued a proclamation declaring April "Confederate History and Heritage Month." Claiming that the Civil War was a struggle for Southern "independence," Allen proudly displays a Confederate flag in his living room.

Sen. Don Nickles, (R-Okla.), another contender for Lott's post, led the fight against the confirmation of gay San Francisco philanthropist James Hormel as ambassador to Luxembourg in 1999.

Among the Democrats, there's Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), a former kleagle of the Ku Klux Klan. During a debate over the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Byrd waged an unsuccessful filibuster for more than 14 hours. A few years ago, Byrd called homosexuality "aberrant behavior" and declared that efforts to legalize gay marriage were "a sneak attack on society."

The Bush administration has its share of open bigots, too. As Missouri attorney general, John Ashcroft opposed a voluntary plan to desegregate schools in St. Louis. And in a 1999 interview with the far-right Southern Partisan magazine, Aschroft described his admiration for Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, Jefferson Davis and other leaders of the Confederacy during the Civil War. That same year, he received an honorary degree from Bob Jones University.

Democrats' praise for a sick old bigot

YOU MIGHT not know it from the mainstream media, but Republicans weren't the only ones to pay homage to Strom Thurmond. Here's what a few of Thurmond's Democratic colleagues in the Senate had to say:

"He's a man of iron with a heart of gold."
--Joseph Lieberman

"The Senate will lose a man who has seen the arc of the 20th century with his very eyes, from fighting in some of the greatest battles in world history to bearing witness to the Great Depression and the Great Society."
--John Kerry

"Strom's word is his bond."
--Joseph Biden

"I cannot even begin to imagine the U.S. Senate without this remarkable individual in our presence."
--Christopher Dodd

The GOP's Frist choice

SEN. BILL FRIST (R-Tenn.) is the Republicans' choice to replace Trent Lott as their party's leader in the Senate.

Frist is a heart surgeon who scrambled into the spotlight over the past few years during congressional debates over a "patients' bill of rights" and other health care issues. But a look at his record shows that Frist might well operate on a patient's wallet rather than their heart.

Frist's father founded HCA, the largest hospital chain in the country--and Frist's brother runs it today. Frist himself owns millions of dollars worth of stock in Columbia/HCA--which happens to be the focus of a government investigation for massive Medicare fraud. Despite the obvious conflict of interest, not only did Frist not withdraw from congressional discussions about Medicare and health care legislation, he took the lead in both discussions.

But there's a lot more to Frist than health care fraud. He's rabidly anti-abortion, anti-labor and anti-environment. Frist has voted against workplace ergonomic standards, prescription drug benefits for seniors, bilingual education and minimum wage increases.

No wonder George W. Bush considers Frist a friend--and used his influence to make him the Senate majority leader.

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