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COL Lott should stand aside

Well-intentioned Thurmond comments were misguided

Sen. Trent Lott made two serious mistakes: He lightheartedly embraced the 1948 segregationist message of fellow southerner Strom Thurmond and then failed to recognize the seriousness of the public reaction.

When his comments were criticized, he at first made a mild apology or two and indicated unconvincingly that his remarks had been misinterpreted. Only after a number of Republican leaders joined in the criticism did he realize the gravity of his error and try to offer a more heartfelt apology.

Lott at first said his comments at a 100th birthday party for Thurmond were merely a well-intentioned tribute to Thurmond on the eve of his retirement as a Republican senator from South Carolina. Lott had said Mississippi was proud to have voted for Thurmond when he ran for president as a Dixiecrat in 1948 and added, "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we would not have had all these problems all these years, either."

Intended or not, those words amounted to an endorsement of Thurmond's pro-segregation platform in the 1948 campaign. Oddly enough, Lott had made a similar remark in 1980 when offering an earlier tribute to Thurmond. The incident also caused a review of Lott's very early career, in which he had backed pro-segregation candidates.

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We doubt Lott intended to give a literal endorsement of racial segregation, but he showed a serious lack of sensitivity with regard to that issue. He also created a problem for President Bush and other national Republican leaders who are trying to attract black voters and make the party more inclusive in other ways.

It is clear now that a serious effort will be made to replace Lott as Senate majority leader. Senate Republicans have scheduled a meeting on Jan. 6 to consider the issue. It is unlikely they would have done so unless there was good reason to believe a majority of the group supports a change.

Lott still has time to resign the post and avoid the disgrace of being replaced. If he fails to do so, his colleagues should choose another leader with a more constructive record.

Republican leaders should leave no doubt about where they stand on the issue of civil rights.

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