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Along with the Senate leader, GOP sheds a Lott of baggage

December 26, 2002

Trent Lott's past caught up with him because he had never put it behind him.

Lott was pushed aside as Republican leader in the Senate last week not simply because he had praised a disgraceful episode in American politics. It also had quickly became apparent that Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party was only the most recent occasion for Lott to express affection for that era.

Republicans wanted no part of nostalgia for the days of segregation.

This being politics, ethical conviction was supplemented by political calculation. The GOP is endeavoring to increase its appeal to minorities, but with a different message than the Democrats offer. Lott couldn't carry that banner.

The GOP can, for instance, oppose affirmative action in college admissions as the wrong response to the discrimination of the past. It cannot credibly do that led by someone who seems to long for the days when blacks were kept out of white institutions altogether.

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A majority leader of no particular distinction, Lott is easily replaced. His departure will soon be only a footnote in political chronicles, but it serves to illustrate how far the country has come in half a century.

In 1948, Strom Thurmond ran a third-party presidential campaign devoted to the preservation of state-mandated segregation and the oppression of blacks. He carried four states.

In 2002, President Bush was moved to rebuke a leading senator of his own party merely for wishing Thurmond had won.

Bush also did his party a favor. The GOP has been carrying some baggage on race ever since Richard Nixon's Southern strategy began the process of changing the South from a Democratic to a Republican stronghold based in part on white resentment of civil rights gains. (The Democrats' shameful history on race happened earlier.)

Turning to a leader other than Lott, Republican senators have renounced those who miss the old South. They have underscored how far America has come from Thurmond's campaign of 1948.

(c) 2002, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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