Not a lot like Lott

NOT A LOT LIKE LOTT…. As you’ve probably heard, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has been the subject of intense Republican criticism over the last couple of days. It seems that Reid, in 2006, was speculating about Barack Obama’s chances as a presidential candidate. Reid was “wowed” by Obama’s skills and was confident that Americans were open to supporting a black presidential candidate, especially one like Obama, who Reid described as a “light-skinned” African American “with no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.”

After the quote was reported, Reid quickly apologized, and the White House quickly accepted. The senator has since received support from prominent leaders from the African-American community and members of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Reasonable people can disagree about the seriousness of Reid’s unfortunate choice of words. I argued yesterday that, given the larger context and Reid’s record on race-related issues, the apology should suffice. Mark Kleiman has a compelling piece arguing that this brouhaha is largely meaningless. Kevin Drum said “this whole thing is ridiculous” and is just “part of the kabuki of American politics.” Even George Will found it preposterous when Liz Cheney attacked Reid as a “racist.”

But the comparison that reporters and Republicans seem to love tries to draw parallels between Reid’s comments and Trent Lott’s pro-segregation remarks from 2002.

Even for our stunted political discourse, this is hopelessly silly.

GOP attack dogs are actually trying to make the case that Lott was forced to give up his leadership post in 2002, so Reid should do the same now. Anything less would be a “double standard.” The media is playing along, as if this were a legitimate argument.

It’s not. Josh Marshall, who knows a bit about the Lott matter, had a great item on this.

Two things in tandem ended Lott’s career in the senate leadership. First, Lott had a long history of support for and association with segregationist and white supremacist groups in the South. Not in some distant past but in the year’s just before his downfall. (He was also a staunch opponent of virtually all civil rights legislation. But that actually didn’t distinguish him that much for many other Southern Republicans of his generation.) To a lot of us at the time it was always a bit of a mystery how someone with his record could have risen as high as he had. This was all widely known in Washington, DC but it was by common agreement overlooked and excused. (In many ways, because of this, it was a scandal of official Washington — as much as Lott.)

Then one day, Lott said this remarkable thing — if only the candidate of segregation (Strom Thurmond) had been elected president in 1948, we’d have avoided all the problems we’ve had in recent decades.

Most other politicians could have walked away from this remark with the claim that they just hadn’t thought through the implications of the statement. The problem for Lott was that almost everything from his past suggested that he knew the implications exactly and believed them deeply. To put it more baldly, too many past statements and actions made it clear he was a supporter of white supremacist politics and segregation. Suddenly what official Washington had always ignored was open to intense scrutiny and his days were numbered.

Folks can make an argument for Reid’s punishment on its own terms; but the Lott analogy is laughable.

Right. Lott’s adult life was filled with racial controversy, including his membership in the Council of Conservative Citizens and his public praise of Jefferson Davis. In 2002, he didn’t just talk up Thurmond’s 1948 presidential campaign — Lott expressed nostalgia for segregation.

Chances are, Republicans realize how absurd the comparison is, but don’t care — this is about scoring points against a vulnerable incumbent in an election year, not making sense. But for the media to play along — and create a controversy basically because the GOP told them to — is ridiculous.