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Jewish World Review Dec. 20, 2002 / 15 Teves, 5763

Bill Steigerwald

Bill Steigerwald
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Lott fiasco uncovers bigger problem | Trent Lott is our national embarrassment of the month.

But he's not bringing America shame because of his hillbilly Mississippi heritage, his hurricane-proof hairpiece or those corny songs he sings in public.

It's not because he was a cheerleader and fraternity geek at Ole Miss in the early 1960s, either. Or because Strom Thurmond and Jeff Davis are still the Senate Republican leader's biggest heroes.

It's not even because of the reason Lott is splattered on the covers of both Time and Newsweek - that after 30 years in Washington he appears to be an unreconstructed segregationist who has trouble remembering that it is 2002 in America and not 1952 in Biloxi.

The real reason Lott is a national embarrassment - or ought to be - is that he is the third most powerful Republican in the land.

In case you've been in a bunker in Baghdad, you know everyone from Al Gore and the Wall Street Journal to Osama bin Laden has been beating up Lott for saying the country wouldn't have had so many problems if Thurmond, a recovering segregationist Dixiecrat, had been elected president in 1948.

Lott is no racist, and no one in Time or Newsweek accuses him of being one. But as both magazines have no trouble pointing out, Lott has been blabbing similarly dumb, out-of-touch, quasi-racist things for a long time.

Time and Newsweek both cover the same ground in their multi-part packages. Neither goes out of its way to stick up for Lott, who is a liberal-spending Republican and "legislative mechanic" whose dearest-held principle is making sure his state gets more federal pork than any other.

Time is toughest on Lott's character. It also goes out of its way to connect his gaffes to the "thinly veiled race baiting" that the Republican Party used to capture the South from the openly bigoted Democrats who ran it until four decades ago.

Guest pundit Andrew Sullivan points out that Lott's gaffe is important because it is really "about the soul of the Republican Party." Lott's "moral and political blindness," Sullivan says, disqualifies him from being the leader of a modern political party, especially one that professes colorblindness.

Newsweek's main piece, "A Man Out of Time," written by Jon Meacham, is more evenhanded, offers more perspective and is less interested in smearing the Republican Party for Lott's sins.

Meacham clearly has a greater - and more affectionate - understanding of the South that produced Lott, no doubt because he is a Southerner himself.

He says Lott's retrograde rhetoric is so outrageous because it belies the "historic change of heart" about race and equality that the South has made in the past 35 years, a change he says is "one of the great stories of American political and moral history."

Meacham says Lott's cluelessness strikes many people as inappropriate to the high office he holds in the 21st century. But don't worry. By the time you read this, party leader Lott already could be back in Row ZZZ of the Senate.

He'll be history. But the real scandal - how he attained such heights in the first place and why American politics is infested with so many phonies like him - will remain.

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JWR contributor Bill Steigerwald is an associate editor and columnist at the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. Comment by clicking here.

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© 2002, Bill Steigerwald