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Jewish World Review Dec. 24, 2002 / 19 Teves, 5763

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Showing where they stand

http://www.NewsAndOpinion.com |
Who would have thought that a few simple words spoken at a birthday party would force the Republican Party to say where it stands on race? But they did and it did. The easing out of Trent Lott as Senate majority leader and the likely installation of Bill Frist sends an important message: Republicans have no truck with nostalgia for the days of racial segregation and want to continue their progress toward a colorblind America.

This result will be seen as a victory for George W. Bush, and so it is. But in our high-tech and increasingly decentralized America, the swelling furor over Lott's words was first sparked not by other politicians or mainstream media, but on weblogs. Some key sites: talkingpoints memo.com, InstaPundit.com, andrewsullivan.com, and the weblogs of National Review and the Weekly Standard. Most of these writers, who all called for Lott's ouster, are conservatives. They oppose racial quotas and preferences precisely because they oppose racial discrimination and want a colorblind society. While Republican senators were grumbling that they wouldn't let liberals choose their leader, the webloggers got the point: Having a highly visible leader expressing affectionate nostalgia for segregation offends not just blacks but the large majority of Americans, who renounce that past.

Why do Democrats draw a bye on this issue while Republicans must prove their bona fides? After all, Democrats had Senate and House leaders who had voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as late as 1989. One was even a Klan member briefly and is now president pro tempore of the Senate. (That would be West Virginia's Robert Byrd.) The answer goes back to 1963, when President Kennedy went on national TV to endorse the Civil Rights Act, and 1964, when Republican nominee Barry Goldwater voted against it. Goldwater carried five Deep South states, and Republicans started winning in territory once carried by segregationist Democrats. But Republicans surged in the South not because whites wanted to return to segregation but because they agreed with Republicans' opposition to big government.

"Seize the moment." Trent Lott got his start in politics in 1968 working for a segregationist Democrat, William Colmer, chairman of the House Rules Committee. In 1972, Colmer retired after 40 years and advised Lott to run for the seat, as a Republican. Lott did and won, at 31, in the congressional district where President Nixon ran strongest nationwide that year. He did little legislating but rather sought leadership posts; he is the only person in history to have been whip in both houses. He became Senate Republican whip in 1994 by leapfrogging his Mississippi colleague Thad Cochran and challenging whip Al Simpson. He won 27 to 26. "There comes a time in life, in politics as in baseball, when you seize the moment or it's gone forever," Lott said. So if you feel sorry for him, remember: He knows how the game is played.

So, it seems, do Bill Frist and George W. Bush. Bush's stinging statement about Lott's mistake and his careful abstention from praise sent an unmistakable message. Bush aides insist that they have not talked down Lott or promoted anyone else. But as one familiar with the way Karl Rove thinks, I feel sure I know what he wanted-Lott out by Christmas and Frist in his place.

Frist, like George W. Bush, first won office in 1994, in a southern state almost entirely devoid of nostalgia for segregation. Busy with becoming a heart and lung transplant surgeon, Frist didn't even vote until he was 36. But he has shown sure political instincts in promoting health legislation and running the Republicans' campaign committee. He kept in touch with fellow senators during the Lott controversy, holding himself available as a possible stand-in but not committing himself to run.

He left it to outgoing whip Don Nickles, decidedly not a Lott fan, to call for his ouster, and to conference chairman Rick Santorum, who was supporting Lott, to call for a caucus January 6. On December 19, Frist announced he'd run if he were guaranteed a majority behind him; the next morning, Lott bowed out. With Santorum's withdrawal at the weekend from the majority leader sweepstakes, Frist is a lock for the job, and, with the White House smiling from the sidelines, he has already begun accumulating both its appurtenances and its considerable powers.

Senate Republicans will have a leader with a color-blind record and no segregationist sympathies. When the Civil Rights Act was passed, Frist was 12. The world of segregation is as strange and repellent to him as it is to most of us. On race, they stand four-square with George W. Bush and with the overwhelming majority of the American people.

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JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of, most recently, "The New Americans." He also edits the biennial "Almanac of American Politics". Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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©2002, Michael Barone