Peter Beinart, the editor of The New Republic, says conservatives like me don’t get it when it comes to Trent Lott. I don’t get what I don’t get.
I know, I know, nobody wants to talk about Trent Lott anymore. But people keep sending me Peter’s recent column and asking me to respond to it as if it were the definitive critique of my crowd. And, besides, I can’t think of anything else to write about. Sorry (it might have to do with soy-based dementia on my part). So I’m just going to jump right in.
Beinart — who I’ve grown to respect a great deal as a friend and sparring partner on CNN’s “Final Round” (on Sunday’s Late Edition) — says that many conservatives just don’t understand what the whole Lott thing was about, that our defensiveness and denial clouds our ability to see Lott’s sins as instances of immorality as opposed to simply stupidity. He doesn’t mention me by name, but I have good reason to think he lumps me in that camp.
Responding to assertions by NR and Fox’s Tony Snow that Lott is probably not racist in his heart, Beinart writes:
This is strange stuff. National Review and Snow seem to be drawing a distinction between Lott’s private character and his public behavior. But no one cares about the love (or hate) in Lott’s heart; how he treats black people in private is irrelevant. The issue is whether Lott’s Thurmond comments, seen in the context of his public record, are racist and segregationist. On their face, they clearly are, and National Review and Snow present no evidence to the contrary. Referring to Lott’s supposed private decency, then, feels like a dodge, a way to avoid full judgment on Lott’s behavior itself.
Forgive me, but I think this is strange stuff.
First of all, racism is about as serious a charge as you can make in America today. If you believe it’s being applied unfairly, you have an obligation to say so, right? If conservatives had called Tom Daschle unpatriotic for saying something like “If we’d only listened to the Rosenbergs, we wouldn’t have all of these problems today,” I’m sure we’d hear plenty of testimonials from Democrats and liberals about the Senate Minority Leader’s private love of country.
By the way, I am agnostic on whether or not Lott is privately racist. I think Tony Snow is a pretty good judge of character, but I also think it’s probably pretty hard to be so chummy with some of those white-pride groups, the way Lott is, and not have some “issues.”
Anyway back to the fray. I don’t see how it matters if referring to Lott’s private decency “feels” like a dodge to Peter — if it’s true. I mean, if Snow and the NR editors are sincere in their belief that Lott isn’t a racist in private, they should say so as a matter of honor if nothing else. But we’ll come back to Lott’s private decency in a second.
Peter also says, “National Review goes on to call ‘many of the attacks on him [Lott] dishonest and opportunistic.’ But National Review presents no examples of such dishonesty or opportunism.” The average reader might conclude from this that Peter actually thinks there are no examples of such opportunism and dishonesty, which we know he couldn’t possibly believe. Unless he agrees with Hillary and Bill Clinton when they each independently claimed that Lott’s “real” mistake was to express views held by the Republican party generally.
Forgive me, but when I hear Hillary Clinton say, “If anyone thinks that one person stepping down from a leadership position cleanses the Republican party of their constant exploitation of race, then I think you’re naive.” This from the woman who suggested Rick Lazio would support justices who’d overturn Brown v. Board of Ed And who saw no problem with the NAACP’s suggestion that George W. Bush favored hate crimes of the James Byrd variety.
As for opportunism, surely some of it didn’t escape Beinart’s gaze. My favorite example was Representative Bennie Thompson’s vaguely Stalinist declaration that Lott could prove he’s been “rehabilitated” by “pushing to raise the minimum wage, increase the stock of affordable housing, providing a prescription drug benefit to seniors and securing healthcare for the 44 million Americans who don’t have it.” Certainly, a politician can prove he is not a racist without favoring a prescription-drug benefit.
A more-relevant example of hucksterism and opportunism was Ted Kennedy’s statement that Bush could prove he disagreed with Lott’s racist views by coming out in favor of affirmative action at the University of Michigan. Ironically, since we discovered that Trent Lott favored affirmative action “across the board,” the best way for Bush to distance himself from Lott’s racist views would be to come out against affirmative action. Regardless, since — I believe — the editorial position of The New Republic is still anti-racial quota, I assume Peter doesn’t agree with Kennedy’s opportunism, er, “logic” either.
Peter is vexed by the fact that conservatives don’t provide evidence that Lott isn’t a racist. But when it comes to accusations, shouldn’t the burden of proof be on the accuser, not the accused? Sure, Peter says that burden was met by Lott’s comments, which “On their face” prove that Lott favors neo-segregationism (whatever that is) and racist policies. I’m sorry, I don’t think that’s good enough.
You see, Peter declares he doesn’t care what’s in Lott’s heart, merely what is on the “public record.” But the problem is that what is on the public record does more to prove Lott is privately racist than it does to prove he’s publicly so. Yes, his comments about a Thurmond victory were bad in December and 20 years ago. Yes, his chumming around with the Council of Conservative Citizens and his praise of Jefferson Davis are all signs of a man comfortable with racists and the idea of segregation. But, according to Peter, his personal comfort is irrelevant. All that matters is what he does about his personal views. And Peter doesn’t remotely demonstrate Lott’s voting record is racist.
He cites Lott’s vote against the 1982 extension of the Voting Rights Act. But there were many good non-racist arguments against that legislation. The bill codified that equality of results, not equality of access or opportunity should be the criteria for judging voting practices. This legislation fostered the worst kind of racial gerrymandering in the 1980s — which, I should add, Republicans shamelessly exploited — creating what Abigail Thernstrom has called “‘homelands’ for black voters.” In fact, a brief Nexis search reveals that results-oriented racial gerrymandering has received quite a drubbing from several writers in the pages of The New Republic over the years (including by TNR’s legal editor Jeffrey Rosen and the indispensable Jim Sleeper). In fact, one gets the sense that if the editors of TNR could go back in time, they might have been against the 1982 bill as written too, precisely because it served to advance the careers of racial hucksters, to use Peter’s phrase.
Beinart cites Lott’s vote against Martin Luther King’s birthday becoming a holiday and for the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University as further evidence that the public Lott has a racist record. But these votes, too, can be defended on non-racist grounds. Personally, I’m in favor of the holiday, but I can understand why a politician might vote against it without being a racist. Taken as a matter of pure economics, the last thing the underemployed black community needs is another day off.
Similarly, Lott’s support of Bob Jones University can be defended on non-racist grounds. Indeed, Michael McConnell, the University of Utah law professor and Bush nominee for an appellate judgeship, has been an ardent defender of BJU. McConnell’s certainly no racist. Indeed, TNR’s Rosen recently wrote, “McConnell is one of the most respected conservative legal scholars in the country — which is why distinguished liberal and moderate scholars such as Laurence Tribe of Harvard, Akhil Amar of Yale, and Cass Sunstein, and David Strauss of the University of Chicago support his nomination.”
Now, a liberal — or even a reasonable non-liberal — might say, “Oh come on. Lott didn’t take these positions because he’s a New Republic liberal, he voted against the Voting Rights Act because he’s a racist.” Maybe, probably, who knows? It doesn’t really matter because Beinart says that what’s in Lott’s heart is “irrelevant.” What we’re supposed to judge is the public record and the public record only. Well, fine. But if that’s our only criteria, Peter has to do more than merely stipulate that Lott’s voting record constitutes “neo-segregationism.”
This is important because the upshot of Peter’s approach is that Lott is self-evidently racist and therefore anyone who votes like him is voting in a racist manner. Indeed, the argument from Beinart seems to be — and the argument from the Clintons and the Congressional Black Caucus surely is — that there’s something fundamentally racist about being a Republican. Forgive us Republicans for taking offense at that.
I just learned from the next NR editorial, for example, that the NAACP gave an “F” on civil rights to every single Republican senator, including moderates like Lincoln Chafee. In other words, simply being a Republican means you fail on civil rights. Peter sees the defensiveness of conservatives as a problem for conservatives, maybe so. But it as problem wrought by liberals. And one way Peter can help solve that problem is by working a bit harder to prove racism on the part of Republicans, rather than just assert its obviousness.