Thanks to InstaPundit for pointing me to this CSpan link to the streaming video of Strom Thurmond’s hundredth birthday celebration. Trent Lott’s comments start at about 32 minutes. Having watched Lott with a sympathetic eye, I still don’t understand what he was thinking. Everything he said was more or less a joke, and I don’t think he inserted one serious observation on social policy into the middle of his monologue. Still, it is incomprehensible how Lott could have such a deaf ear as not to realize how bizarre it would sound to express regret that Thurmond lost the 1948 election. And if his comment was a joke, it was even less funny than the rest of his speech.
Here is the broader point I want to make: Lott and the other participants in the Thurmond event were guilty of a massive, collective failure of judgment in the way they handled the event. I assume they were blinded by the friendship and respect that they have personally for Thurmond, and failed to understand what he symbolizes to Americans generally. It was a terrible mistake for their tributes to be unqualified and to make no reference to Thurmond’s evolution over the last 50+ years. To listen to Trent Lott (and others), it would appear that Thurmond’s career was, from beginning to end, a credit to himself and his native state. This simply isn’t true. Thurmond’s early career, viewed from the perspective shared by nearly all twenty-first century Americans, was a disgrace. His political rehabilitation coincides more or less with his leaving the Democratic Party and becoming a Republican. For the Republicans to be seen as unqualifiedly embracing Thurmond is a needless tactical blunder. It exposes the Republicans to the slander that, as the party now supported by the majority of Southern whites, they have merely inherited the racist mantle once worn by the Democrats–thus leaving the Republicans holding the bag for the Democrats’ embarrassing past. The truth is the opposite: the ascendancy of the Republican Party in the South has largely coincided with white Southerners’ rejection of their region’s segregationist past, and their desire to create a “New South” unsullied by the unsavory aspects of the region’s history. For Republicans to give up this moral high ground by failing to take the opportunity to distinguish between Thurmond’s inglorious past as a Democrat and his mainstream present as a Republican was unforgivably stupid.
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