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FIRST-PERSON: Trent Lott & cleaning up the mess

McMINNVILLE, Ore. (BP)–Thoughtless statements are like toothpaste; once they have been “squeezed” out, they are almost impossible to “put back in.” Sen. Trent Lott, R.-Miss., recently “squirted” a tube’s worth of misstatements and is currently trying to clean up his mess.

At a celebration honoring the 100th birthday of Sen. Strom Thurmond, Lott stated: “I want to say this about my state: 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.”

Had Lott only expressed pride in Mississippi’s support of Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat campaign — which had a dominating pro-segregation plank in its platform (some would even argue that segregation was the only plank) — it would have been bad enough. Adding the belief that had the centenarian been elected the country would have been spared “all these problems” really complicated matters.

Without the benefit of clarification as to what Lott meant by the phrase “all these problems,” and the good senator has yet to offer any explanation — only apologies — one is left to speculate. As a result, many knee-jerk reactionaries have labeled the man who-would-be majority leader of the Senate. Anyone who dares support him is suspect of having a white hood hanging in the back of his or her closet.

Is Trent Lott a racist? Those who know him well say the charge is absurd. His voting record also indicates otherwise. However, perception is reality. And the perception Lott’s statement presents is damaging. Others in the public eye have learned the hard way that sometimes words can cause even more damage than sticks and stones.

In 1990 Clayton Williams was the Republican candidate for governor in the state of Texas. He was locked in a tight race with Democrat Ann Richards but seemed to be gaining momentum in the final weeks of the campaign. Then it happened. The brash millionaire opened his mouth and inserted his foot up all the way up to his knee.

Hoping to curry favor with the press, Williams invited several reporters for some informal “off the record” time at his ranch. In casual conversation, the subject of the weather came up. Williams could not resist the temptation to play meteorologist and commented that bad weather is sort of like rape: “as long as it’s inevitable, you might as well lie back and enjoy it.” When Williams’ words were reported throughout the Lone Star State, women gasped, Republicans groaned and Democrats grinned. Damage control was useless and Ann Richards was elected governor.

Did anyone seriously believe that Clayton Williams thought rape was acceptable? Of course not. However, the perception that he was insensitive to women destroyed his bid for governor. Does anyone seriously believe that Trent Lott is a racist? I doubt it. However, the perception of insensitivity toward blacks hangs ominously over his head right now.

Certain Democrats are screaming bloody murder over Lott’s remarks. Many Republicans are pointing out the hypocrisy of such a reaction, citing Democrats who have been guilty of similar insensitive gaffes in the past. Such posturing is just politics as usual in Washington.

If Lott was just another member of the Republican Party, his specifically vague comment might be his problem alone to deal with. However, he is the Senate majority leader in waiting. As such, liberals will use his words to emphasize the “Old” — as in 1950s old — in the Grand Old Party.

Like it or not — unfair or not — the insinuation will be made that with Lott tolerated as Senate leader too many Republicans just don’t get it when it comes to issues of race. Rest assured each and every time an issue has anything remotely to do with minorities, a few select Democrats will play the race card and Trent Lott’s picture will be on it.

I am sure Lott and his Republican cohorts deeply regret his remarks. However, regret alone does not get the toothpaste back into the tube. The mess must be cleaned up in such fashion so as to remove the perception of insensitivity to blacks. Thus far all efforts have only served to smear the toothpaste around. Does anyone have a towel to toss in?
Boggs is pastor of Valley Baptist Church, McMinnville, Ore.

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  • Kelly Boggs