Could Trent Lott have saved himself? We probably won’t ever be able to know the answer. I think it was within his ability to save himself, to give the equivalent of Nixon’s Checkers speech — which was a great one, and one few people actually remember accurately — and wrest control of this controversy away from the Democrats and the press.Lott just can’t handle this kind of pressure. Never a very philosophical man, he’s more of a vote counter than a bomb thrower, more deal maker than ideologue — and that means, in the face of angry questions and hostile interviews, he’s wilted like so much winter kudzu. He’s gone all over the map on his vote against the MLK holiday (Lott, like many others, has always said he opposes all government holidays because of their massive cost — around $300 million). He’s become Mr. Affirmative Action. And he’s talking about the South as if it’s some retromingent backlog of Third World economics and antebellum hostility. He just keeps digging a bigger hole.
Here’s a speech that Lott didn’t give. I don’t know if it would’ve saved him. He’s not a naturally eloquent man, so it’s hard to recover from mistakes like this. But I think if he had delivered a speech like this — solemnly, carefully, without any degree of lightheartedness — I think his cause might be a little better right now. He should’ve spoken on the front porch of his house. He should’ve taken no questions. He should not have smiled. He should just have been himself.
The Pascagoula Speech
Hello everyone. My name is Trent Lott, and I’m from Pascagoula, Mississippi.
I come before you tonight as a Senator, and as a man whose honesty and integrity has been questioned.
There’s a usual political thing to do when charges are made against you. You either ignore them, and pretend they didn’t happen. Or you deny them, and say that you’re blameless and innocent. There’s too much of that in politics already without me getting involved, so I’m not going to do either of those things tonight.
To me the office of United States Senator is a great office, and I feel that the people have got to have confidence in the integrity and honor of anyone they elect to hold that office. I’ve always believed that the best way to answer a charge, whether it’s a smear campaign or just an honest misunderstanding, is with the truth. And that is why I am here tonight.
I grew up here in Pascagoula. My father was a shipyard worker here, and my mother was a teacher. I went to the University of Mississippi, and my family and I worked hard so I could afford to go to law school there. I went to work for William Colmer, the Democrat Congressman from these parts, back in the late 60s — and when I first ran for office in 1972, I was glad to count William as my first supporter from the other side of the aisle.
The people of Mississippi have been good to me. It’s been an honor for me to serve them in the House and the Senate. And while I’ve been in Washington, I’ve tried to quit myself well. I’ve done my best to fight for the needs of Mississippi and of all Americans, and I’ve served the nation I love as hard as I can.
My party has seen fit to elect me as their leader in the Senate. It’s a position of great importance and history. Some of the great Americans who’ve held this position include Everett Dirksen, Henry Cabot Lodge, Charles McNary, Robert Taft, Howard Baker, and Bob Dole. And I consider it an honor to be counted among the ranks of men who have given so much in the service of their country.
I’m not an eloquent man. I haven’t succeeded in politics because I’m a skilful speaker, who can move people’s hearts with a few words. I’m a simple man, from a small town. So I’ve tried to compensate for that by working harder, putting in longer hours, and doing my best to meet the people of Mississippi where they live, as neighbors and friends, not just as another voter.
We all make mistakes sometimes when we talk. We say things that are rude or insensitive or just plain wrong. I don’t know a single person who hasn’t ever insulted or offended someone with their speech, unintentionally — either by telling an off-color joke, gossiping about others behind their backs, or making an inappropriate comment.
I’m no different as a person. The difference is, because of the position of prominence I have, when I make a mistake or speak without thinking that mistake gets carried on national TV and broadcast around the country. Instead of an apology on a personal level to the folks I offended, I must try to offer what impersonal apology I can through the lens of a TV camera.
My comment at Senator Thurmond’s birthday party was not in any way intended as an endorsement of the views Senator Thurmond espoused back in 1948. I did not misspeak; I simply did not consider the message my remarks would convey. It was a foolish statement, made in praise of an old, dying man. But that is no excuse for the offense.
When Senator Thurmond ran for President, I was all of seven years old. I would’ve had a hard time telling you what segregation meant then, or explaining why my black friends and white friends were “different.” But as I grew up and saw what turmoil the South was going through in the 50s and 60s, I saw a very clear battle going on — one that was more about the root belief in the equality and freedom than anything else.
I am a federalist, and a conservative. That means I believe in small government, in low taxes, in the rights of states and of individuals. People may disagree with my voting record — but I stand by it. I have fought hard to pursue the interests of the state of Mississippi. And there is not one vote I have cast in the Senate or the Congress that I regret.
I have had a long career in politics, and I am honored of the position in which God has seen fit to place me. I also understand the political realities of this media age. I understand that a stupid and insensitive comment like the one I made is repeated a million times, compounding the offense.
Some folks call it “gotcha” politics. But you know what, people out there that hate me wouldn’t be able to play “gotcha” if I didn’t give them something in the first place. And I will not allow the Republican party, the South, or the people of Mississippi to suffer for an offense that is nothing but my own.
And so tonight, I have called a meeting of the Republican Conference of the United States Senate. I will ask the Conference to vote again on the position of Majority Leader.
If the party supports me, I will continue on. But I believe that my fellow Senators deserve the right to make a forthright decision about their leader, and vote for the best possible candidate. If they choose to replace me with someone else, there are many worthy individuals within the Senate who would be good leaders in my stead. And I will not oppose their efforts.
I believe in America. I believe that America is a blessed nation. I believe America has, through war and conflict, protest and politics, come a long way down the road to resolving the problems of race, towards fulfilling the true meaning of our creed: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…
Across this country, though, you and I know that there are still pockets of hate, groups that have not learned from the past, groups that would like to live in a world without any members of other races, with signs that say “colored don’t enter here,” where the white children don’t hold hands with the black ones.
That is racist. That is evil. That is unAmerican. Anyone who stands for that view must know that they have an enemy in Trent Lott.
I am a simple man. I have always tried, throughout my career, to do the right thing. And I have made mistakes, like any flawed person. I apologize to those I have offended, and hope you will forgive me. In the end, that’s all I can hope for.
My name is Trent Lott, and I’m from Pascagoula, Mississippi.
May God bless you all, and may God bless America. Thank you, and goodnight.