Trent Lott has long tried to have it both ways in the battle over civil rights, speaking in a code that signaled his support for segregationist groups but in words so vague that he could later deny that they meant anything at all. The Senator from Mississippi appeared as recently as the 1990s before a white-supremacist group, the Council of Conservative Citizens, telling its members that they stand for "the right principles and the right philosophy." When confronted over the remarks later, he denied any "firsthand" knowledge of the group's beliefs. For years, the tactic worked for Lott, who used it mostly in small gatherings in the South, where he was able to curry favor without paying much of a price elsewhere. But last week the bill came due. As Lott acknowledged in an interview with TIME, "I've said things and done things on race-related issues that weren't intended to be hurtful but that I now realize were hurtful."
Lott's attitude and record on civil rights became a burning issue last week because of what he said at a 100th-birthday celebration for retiring Senator Strom Thurmond. Former majority leader Bob Dole had set the stage nicely with a tribute to the wizened, wheelchair-bound Thurmond, a South Carolinian born when "America had yet to honor the promise of equal opportunity for all our citizens." A fiery segregationist for most of his career, Thurmond eventually embraced the extension of the Voting Rights Act and the holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. and thus came to symbolize, Dole said, a country that "outgrew old prejudices."
Dole's graceful words made it all the more jolting when Lott, who is scheduled to resume his old job as majority leader when the Senate convenes next month, took the podium and declared, "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."
The room, jammed with well-wishers, a handful of reporters and one of those ever present C-SPAN cameras, went silent for a moment. And so did the rest of Washington, for a few days. But Lott had set off a time bomb. During the 1948 race Lott was referring to, Thurmond had broken with the Democratic Party over President Truman's expansion of civil rights for black Americans. Thurmond ran for President as the nominee of the States' Rights Party, also known as the Dixiecrats. Its platform was built almost entirely around a pledge to uphold "the segregation of the races and the integrity of each race." Thurmond won 39 electoral votes on his vow that "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches."
Lott's apparent nostalgia for the days of Jim Crow segregation was denounced as "fundamentally racist" by former Vice President Al Gore. In a terse written statement, Lott apologized to "anybody who was offended" by his "poor choice of words." But the Washington Post reported that Lott had used almost identical words in praise of Thurmond's segregationist campaign during comments in Mississippi in 1980. A slip of the lip suddenly looked like a pattern and opened a public exhumation of Lott's long record of votes and statements hostile to the civil rights movement.