These past several days, a firestorm of controversy erupted because U.S. Senate Republican Leader Trent Lott (R-Mississippi), speaking at the public 100th Birthday celebration for outgoing Senator Strom Thurmond (R- South Carolina) last Thursday (5 December), waxed quite loquacious and made some remarks re: Mississippi having given its Electoral Vote to Thurmond's State's Rights "Dixiecrat" Presidential bid way back in 1948 and then said something to the effect of our Nation not having many of the problems it has now had Thurmond been elected. After a delay of one or two so-called "news cycles" (which suggests to me that Mr. Lott's eventual detractors hadn't even bothered to pay attention to Senator Thurmond's Centenary fete until they were told to pay attention to this one particular portion of the proceedings), Senator Lott was criticized for making what were described as "racist" comments and- since then- the Mississippian has been making the rounds of nationally televised "talking head" programs doing a mea culpa (though I have to question the sincerity of this effort, seeing it more as a response to conservatives who fear that the Senator's comments advance a stereotype that those on the Right find rather disquieting to have to confront in the mirror).
It just so happens that I myself did watch the Thurmond Centennial bash (it was televised on C-SPAN) in its entirety- live and, thus, with no preconceived notions as to what was being said by those on the dais- and, in this context, I saw Senator Lott's comments as little more than a politician engaging in some excessively effusive praise for a colleague whose political, as well as personal, longevity is a marvel to behold- regardless of where one happens to fall on the political spectrum. Senator Thurmond is the first and, so far, only sitting U.S. Senator to have reached the three-digit mark in age and, though only technically (since the 107th Congress adjourned sine die just prior to Specially-Elected Republican Jim Talent of Missouri succeeding Democrat Jean Carnahan late last month [and, thus, making the Senate a GOP-controlled body once again]), the first and only centenarian Senate President pro Tempore- a record of achievement admittedly trivial but, nevertheless, something in which a political pundit who also happens to be a history buff- that is, someone like myself- tends to revel.
Long after he is someday gone, Strom Thurmond's name will remain something of a rather dicey political subject, at least until those who will still be able to remember him well into the rest of this still new Century have themselves left this earthly realm: yes, he was elected Governor of South Carolina way "back in the day"- in 1946, in fact: a time when one could not become Governor of a Southern State of this Union without firmly pledging to uphold Segregation and the related apartheid we still euphemistically call 'Jim Crow' in much the same way successful Governors of New Hampshire to this very day must yet pledge to continue support of a ban on State Income and Sales Taxes; it was also a time when the South was, indeed, the Solid South... for Democrats back then, as it nowadays seems to be for Republicans (Mary Landrieu's re-election to the U.S. Senate in last weekend's Louisiana Runoff aside)... a time when merely winning the Democratic Primary in a Statewide race in the South was tantamount to actual Election to Office, a time when winning a Primary Runoff after a particularly close multi-candidate First Round in a Southern State (as Thurmond had to do against James McLeod back in '46) might very well depend on, to borrow the admittedly pejorative phraseology of later Alabama George Wallace (who was to be the 1968 Presidential Election what Thurmond was to the 1948 one), "not getting 'out-nigra'd' " by one's opponent. None of this, of course, is intended as an apologia for the prevalent views of the then-"bell curve" of White Southern Democrats- views I myself found reprehensible as a child growing up in late 1960s "Metro New York/Tri-State" Suburbia and which I still find appalling, as I look back, to this very day... but historical context, so lacking in the invective of recent detractors, is all important here if one is to fairly judge that which Senator Lott has said!
The State's Rights Democratic Party- aka the "Dixiecrats"- of 1948 was not so much a Party as an Idea, albeit a dying (however slow the deserved death) one- as American History over the next generation or so would so well demonstrate. It was, in retrospect, a rather desperate response by conservative Southern Democrats to a National Democratic Convention that had adopted what, for its time, was a rather broad Civil Rights plank in the Party Platform (pushed most heartily by then-Minneapolis Mayor and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Hubert H. Humphrey, which is why it is singularly ironic that- 20 years later- Humphrey's own Presidential bid would be largely adversely affected by George Wallace- again, the lineal political descendant of the Strom Thurmond of 1948- and his American Independent Party- the lineal political descendant of these very "Dixiecrats"), a plank that these same Southerners could not very well stomach, and then nominated Missourian Harry S Truman, a man who considered himself a Southerner (thus, likewise appearing to be a "traitor" to the "Dixiecrats") and who was already readying his Executive Order desegregating the U.S. Military even as the "Dixiecrats" were holding their own "rump" Convention in Birmingham, Alabama that July.
Thurmond was probably among the less objectionable potential Presidential candidates available to the "Dixiecrats" that Summer. Although, by most accounts, sharp-tongued in his attacks on the National Democratic Party's views on Civil Rights (he had been the principal author of a motion before the Southern Governors' Conference- held at Wakulla Springs, Florida in February 1948- to challenge the emerging Civil Rights position of the Democratic Party hierarchy [it goes without saying that all the Governors at this Conference were themselves Democrats!]), Thurmond was always careful to well wrap these within the concept of State's Rights as a political philosophy and the notion of Southerners as a distinct People within the American fabric (it is no accident that the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups of the 1970s included "Southerners" [meaning, of course, Southern Whites] as one of these ethnic groups) and pushed the economic aspects of his side of the issue (arguing, for example, that forcing White employers to hire Black employees against their will was the stuff of Communism- another "bogey-man" of post-World War II conservatism, even outside the South) even moreso than the racialist philosophy that so clearly underlay it.
Thurmond's statement that "[i]f the South should vote for Truman this year, then we might as well petition the [Federal] Government to give us colonial status" probably resonated quite a bit farther throughout the South than the type of invective expressed by then-Alabama Governor Frank Dixon who, in his Keynote Address to the "Dixiecrat" Convention, opined that the Democrats' 1948 Civil Rights plank "means to create a great melting pot of the South, with white and Negroes intermingled... to reduce us to the status of a mongrel, inferior race, mixed in blood, our Anglo-Saxon heritage a mockery". Yet there can, of course, be no question that Southern pride so intermingled with the darker forces of Racism within the context of the "Dixiecrat" campaign to the point that there was no way to possibly separate the two (as would be the case today): it was yet another singular irony that, within the "Dixiecrats"' fear of the intermixing of Black with White, there had to be an intentional intermixing of anti-Communist "Main Street" business sense with much the same racialist element that the United States and its Allies had only too recently defeated in Nazified Europe during World War II... then again, a century before, hadn't Slavery only served, in the end, to enslave the Slave-owner well within his own fears of "Negro Revolt" (not to mention the terrible cost the Civil War itself inflicted upon the States of the defeated Confederacy)?
Senator Lott is, of course, correct in noting that Mississippi gave its 1948 Electoral Vote to Thurmond (the South Carolinan's running mate, Fielding Wright, happened to be the Governor of Mississippi at the time) and the "Dixiecrats" ended up winning four Southern States- three of them by huge margins (though, to be fair, Presidential Electors for the National Democratic ticket of Truman/Barkley were somewhat hamstrung by the ballot-access rules in two of these States at the time; in those Southern States where the ballot was fairer to the National Democrats- such as Arkansas and Georgia [both of which, by the way, would go for George Wallace in 1968]- the Thurmond/Wright ticket didn't do very well at all). Ineligible to run for a second term as Governor under the then-provisions of the South Carolina Constitution in 1950, Thurmond ran for the U.S. Senate and ended up losing a close two-man Democratic Primary to incumbent Senator Olin Johnston, then was elected to the U.S. Senate in a rather bizarre Special Election four years later (in which the Democratic nominee- incumbent Senator Burnet Maybank- had died and, rather than hold a Special Primary, the State Democratic leadership hand-picked a replacement candidate for the ballot; Thurmond, at war with the Party over this, ran a successful write-in campaign as an Independent in the Special Election itself, then resigned from his Senate seat so as to force a Special Primary in 1956 in which he could run as a Democrat... he was to be unopposed in both the Special Primary and the Special Election that followed).
Thurmond, already- thanks to his "Dixiecrat" campaign- a "lightning rod" for the slings and arrows of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, remained an unabashed and unapologetic conservative throughout his more than four and a half decades of service in the Senate. In 1960, Thurmond received the Electoral Vote for Vice-President from 14 Presidential Electors who had been chosen as "Unpledged" Democratic Electors in Alabama and Mississippi (and who voted for Democrat Senator Harry Flood Byrd of Virginia for President; Byrd got one more Electoral Vote than Thurmond because a so-called "faithless" Republican Elector in Oklahoma voted for Byrd for President but Republican Senator Barry Goldwater of Arizona for V.P.); then, in late 1964, Thurmond bolted the Democrats (again over Civil Rights: the Civil Rights Act of 1964 had just been adopted) for the Republicans and, thus, supported Goldwater over President Lyndon Johnson in that year's November election (South Carolina was one of the 6 States- 5 in the South- Goldwater managed to hold against the "All the Way with LBJ" tidal wave).
But Thurmond's days as the premier Southern conservative "lightning rod" were waning as the 1960s became the 1970s: his opposition to Civil Rights bills and the like ultimately failed, of course, and liberal Democrats soon found other Southern fish to fry (such as when the Elections of 1972 brought Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina- also, by coincidence, retiring this year- to the Senate). Thurmond's "conservative transponder" would, of course, still show up now and then on the liberal "hate radar" (I myself still well remember his so strongly pushing the bill known as S.1- a mid-1970s conservative [where not dangerously anti-libertarian] complete recodification of the Federal Criminal Code [United States Code Title 18] that, fortunately, failed of passage- in his position as Ranking Member of the Senate Judiciary Committee) but as he became the most recent "old man of the Senate" and, as a result, fell into such ceremonial roles as Senate President pro Tempore whenever the GOP took control of the Senate at various and sundry times during the 1980s and as the 1990s became the early 21st Century, he more and more gave up such "out-front" positions within the Senate hierarchy (thus, it was left to Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah- and not Strom Thurmond- to more and more emerge as the Republican lynchpin of the Judiciary Committee in the wake of all the controversies surrounding the juridicial conservatism of U.S. Supreme Court nominees such as- most notably- Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas).
The African-American aides who would be seen handing the South Carolina Senator his pre-prepared list of questions to ask of a judicial nominee seeking confirmation before the Judiciary Committee were visual testimony to Thurmond's own acceptance that times had, indeed, long since changed. At the same time, however, while liberal Democrats could even come to find a Southern Senator like Sam Ervin (who, like Thurmond, came to the Senate in 1954 to fill a vacancy) much beloved once Ervin had taken the Chair of the Senate Select Committee that investigated the Watergate scandal in 1973, they could never even begin to so warm up to Strom Thurmond: the recent reaction to Trent Lott's remarks, therefore, have to be seen, at least in part, as- in effect- a last blast from liberals at Senator Thurmond himself- one final chance to hit the old man yet one more time before he takes that final ride into the sunset of American Political History. The fact that the words that flowed from Mr. Lott's own mouth made this a much easier task for his detractors makes no real difference to this analysis.
For, in the end, much of the recent attack on Senator Lott makes little, if any, sense: Thurmond was, after all, never elected President in 1948 (and I seriously doubt that Lott, being 7 years old at the time, himself cast a vote for the "Dixiecrat"s that won his State in any event); the ideas that once fueled the "Dixiecrats" have been legally moribund for the better part of four decades now and, as George Wallace's own failed campaigns for the Presidency proved, politically moribund for more than a quarter century! No Southern Republican who would hope to actually win an election for statewide office would dare suggest the outright repeal of Federal Civil Rights legislation any more than that same Republican would demand an end to the concept of "One Person, One Vote" in Reapportionment as did a plank of the 1964 Republican National Platform under which Strom Thurmond himself once switched Parties: certainly none of last month's GOP victors in Southern Senatorial and Gubernatorial races even suggested such a thing in the course of their campaigns. Thus, to be fair, Senator Lott's remarks must be placed on the same scales as those of the many Democratic Senators who, on the floor of the Senate last month, were willing to so effusively praise the late Senator Paul Wellstone of Minnesota with much the same enthusiasm they had once reserved for avoiding being seen as even somewhat supportive of Wellstone's many amendments to pending legislation!
Were Trent Lott's remarks, in and of themselves, "racist"? Hardly! (Though, yes, they were stupid!!) But the aging warriors of what the 1960s came to call "The Movement" cannot seem to so easily sign the "cease-fire" even once victory has so long ago been achieved and- beyond those who are old enough to still carry in their nostrils the whiff of the "grapeshot" of, say, the Montgomery Bus Boycott and "I Have A Dream"- anything that might tie the Republicans of 2002- however loosely, where not downright illogically- to the "Dixiecrat"s of 1948 must have seemed all too tempting to even the younger adherents of the liberal wing of a Democratic Party which has now basically blown two national Elections in a row... especially when this is all then linked to the rest of the hyperbole so openly expressed by this very Party, one now no longer licking its wounds (thanks to Senator Landrieu) but still acting somewhat like a badly injured animal.
Just today, I received an e-mailing from a group of Democratic Party activists telling me that "it's time to fight" what they call "the GOP extremist agenda". Of course, this is just the usual "preaching to the choir" pap (I get the same kind of garbage [except that it is, of course, anti- Democrat] from Republican activist groups the e-mailing lists of which I have somehow gotten myself onto through no fault of my own-- I keep thinking of the line from Woody Allen's now-three decade-old film Sleeper :"We believe that, when someone was convicted of a crime against your state, they were forced to watch this"... except that, as far as I know, I have never been convicted of anything!) in which a mere policy battle over National Tax Policy somehow becomes a war between "Extremists": no wonder Voter Turnout is down in this country!! While I am sure that, at least to some very few, United States Code Title 26 (the Internal Revenue Code) makes riveting "couldn't put it down for even a second" reading, as for me- I'll pass, thank you very much! (Then again, during the one-time-only Vice Presidential debate in 2000, Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut did call a tax deduction "exciting"!!) Somehow, Title 26 just doesn't measure up to either the Autobiography of Malcolm X or Soul on Ice. This particular e-mailing blames Unemployment on the "extremism" of the Republican Party as a whole and then urges those of us receiving same to donate money in order to get our "Kick 'em Out!" bumper sticker (excuse me, Democrats... but wasn't there a chance to actually so "kick 'em out" as recently as this past 5 November?... besides, given the tone of the recitation of economic woes and their alleged causes in this particular e-mailing, I would think a bumper sticker reading "Bosses Don't Fire People-- Republicans Fire People!" would have been a much better offering!!)
In short, the complaints against Trent Lott's comments are generally coming from "the usual suspects"; of course, not a one of these complaints have done a single whit to keep a child growing up in, for instance, the grittier streets of the South Jamaica section of my one-time home New York City Borough of Queens from, say, being recruited as a drug courier for a local gang! Once more, Rhetoric precludes Substance... and Action yet again fails of Accomplishment-- let alone Achievement!!