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Lott by then had figured he was about to go over a cliff, his cell phone his only lifeline as he dialed up more than 50 of his colleagues to apologize and explain. His Senate second in command, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, was pleading with Republican Senators to defend their leader but found few takers. Word went around that at least one Republican Senator was threatening to publicly demand Lott's resignation. The only people who seemed to see any benefit in his remaining as one of the most visible figures of the Republican Party were the Democrats, which is why their leader, Tom Daschle, was privately counseling patience. Lott's friends, meanwhile, said that the Senator, a sunny figure who can often be heard humming and whistling country tunes, sounded as depressed as they have ever heard him.
The stories kept getting worse, as reporters and Lott critics dug up evidence of his long record of resistance to the civil rights movement. TIME reported on its website that in college Lott had led the fight to keep his fraternity all white, not just in Mississippi but in chapters across the U.S. In Congress he had voted against nearly every contentious civil rights measure, including some that most in his party had supported. He had filed a friend-of-the-court brief to argue for maintaining the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, despite its discriminatory policies and its ban on interracial dating. (In his defense, his office offered a list of largely symbolic accomplishments on behalf of minorities: a congressional medal for Rosa Parks, who began the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott; a task force to recognize the slaves who helped build the Capitol; a day honoring minority World War II veterans.)
Most of the case against Lott was not fresh, but it was new to a national audience that knew him, if at all, only as the pleasant-looking fellow with the hurricane-proof hair who was always drawling about some legislative gambit on the Sunday TV talk shows. For a man who has occupied leadership positions in the House and Senate for 23 years, Lott has little to show for it by way of political vision or legislative authorship. In that sense, the Thurmond flap was a defining moment for Lott--a chance to prove that he had grown and changed and was fit to be a national leader.
He flew from Key West to his home in the shipbuilding and shrimping town of Pascagoula on Mississippi's Gulf Coast and opened a news conference by saying his comments at the Thurmond party were "totally unacceptable and insensitive, and I apologize for that." He added, "I grew up in an environment that condoned policies and views that we now know were wrong and immoral, and I repudiate them. Let me be clear: segregation and racism are immoral." Lott asked for "forbearance and forgiveness as I continue to learn from my own mistakes." But once he got beyond his script and the questions started, Lott was talking about the new Pascagoula River bridge for which he had won federal funding, the Nissan auto plant he had helped attract to Canton and all the defense contracts he had brought home, sounding more like the Fifth District Congressman he once was than the leader of the U.S. Senate.