The Washington Times

I was traveling in the early part of last week and accordingly decided to file my column early; I therefore wasn’t able to call for Trent Lott to step aside as Senate majority leader before he actually did so. Evidently, I was not missed. Good job, everybody.

In the aftermath, some have expressed the view that the rapidly metastasizing scandal turned Mr. Lott into something he really wasn’t: a monster. That’s true, if hardly unique to the case of Mr. Lott. Go ask figures from previous scandals. But in this case, there truly was a monster, and it was Mr. Lott himself who conjured it up. The monster is not precisely racism but rather a racially [or otherwise] insensitive heedlessness – the propensity to spout off in some fashion or to act in such a way as to offend the dignity of large numbers of people without even being aware of doing so.

Anyone who thinks Mr. Lott sincerely wishes Strom Thurmond had been elected president in 1948 ought to have his head examined. Indeed, it strikes me that Mr. Lott fought as long as he did precisely because he knew that the substance of the charge against him – that he would like to roll back the clock to the days of legal segregation – was ridiculous.

And yet: It was not acceptable to say what he said because one should have within oneself a governor – a conscience, perhaps – that enables one to look at what’s about to come out from other people’s points of view. Indeed, when this mechanism – the ability to see oneself in others and others in oneself – is working properly, inappropriate sentiments in need of censorship tend not to threaten to come forward at all. The problem was therefore not the substance of Mr. Lott’s comment but the missing element within him it revealed.

Now, Democratic partisans looking at this whole affair can and will see what they want, secure in the knowledge that they enjoy the electoral support of an overwhelming majority of African-Americans. Thus, Mr. Lott has mainly been cast here as the man who accidentally opened the curtain on the cynical way the Republicans have long used racial issues to stoke up majorities among white voters in the South. In this context, we have also been hearing a fair bit about the primary-season 2000 visit of a McCain-wounded George W. Bush to Bob Jones University [with its ban on interracial dating] in South Carolina.

The question that serious Democrats ought to ask themselves is whether the view they have of the GOP and race is a view of a permanent debility among Republicans that will indefinitely alienate African-Americans, or whether they are willing to entertain the proposition that race relations constitute a work in progress for the GOP.

In this sense, there are two points to be made about Mr. Lott. One is what he said and what it revealed about him, and possibly about others; the other is the swift and furious reaction it engendered within his own party. It was not Democrats who did him in; it was Republicans. Democrats could not have brought him down had Republicans chosen to defend him; only Republicans could. And they did. Now, was this merely an exercise in jettisoning a political liability? I think this completely misconstrues the anger at the offense itself.

And about Bob Jones University: True, Mr. Bush went there. If he now regards it as the single least-attractive thing he did during his campaign, an embarrassment to his claim to be “a uniter, not a divider,” a decision born in a moment of desperation to draw on a very nasty strain of GOP politicking in the South, I would agree. The interesting question, then, is whether that might not just have been the last visit of a GOP presidential candidate to Bob Jones University or its equivalent in terms of divisiveness.

It seems to me that nowadays, Republicans are more often and more swiftly getting the right answers to these kinds of questions.

CORRECTION: In my column last week, I attempted to perform a mathematical calculation, with unfortunate results. The question is the federal tax collected on a dollar of corporate earnings paid out as dividend income to someone paying at the top individual tax rate vs. someone paying at the bottom individual tax rate. Corporate taxes averaged 21 percent of net income in 1999, leaving 79 cents of the dollar to pay out as a dividend. The remaining 79 cents, taxed at the top individual rate of 38.6 percent, would leave 48.5 cents of the original dollar in earnings in the pocket of the top income earner [not counting state taxes]. Those paying at the lowest rate of 15 percent would pocket a little over 73 cents.