Our ugly past refuses to stay buried

December 16, 2002|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - There's a certain justice in the fact that Trent Lott got into this passel of trouble by attending a birthday party. Not just anybody's birthday, mind you, but Strom Thurmond's 100th celebration.

Before Mr. Lott lauded the old Dixiecrat as the Man Who Should Have Been President, he was all set to lead the Senate. More astonishingly, Strom Thurmond was about to roll out of the public spotlight with no more controversial epitaph than the last words he uttered on the Senate floor: "That's all."

Now they're both tripped up on, of all things, history.

The senator from Mississippi wasn't the only one who praised the departing centenarian. The president saluted Mr. Thurmond's "patriotism, courage and lifetime dedication to South Carolina." Sen. Orrin Hatch described him as a "great" man who had "done great things in his life."

Most of the senators called him a "living legend," as if longevity was legendary. Just a few were as discreet as Christopher Dodd, who said, "He's not just a witness to the entire 20th century, he was a full participant." This diplomatic phrase reminded me of my father's response when forced to compliment an infant: "Now there's a baby."

Today, Mr. Lott is getting appropriately skewered for praising the segregationist who would have saved the country from "all these problems." But Mr. Thurmond himself passed 100 in a haze of nostalgia as if he'd never done anything more controversial in public life than stand on his head and marry a beauty queen.

We don't mention the Strom Thurmond who defended Jim Crow. The Thurmond who called civil rights advocates communists. Or the presidential candidate who said "there are not enough troops in the Army to force Southern people to admit the Negroes into our theaters, swimming pools and homes."

Mr. Lott said he was "trying to honor the man, not the policies" - as if you could separate the two. Can you separate the Dixiecrat from segregation? Can you honor Strom Thurmond's endurance, his bladder-defying 24-hour filibuster in 1957 - the longest on Senate record - without mentioning that he was filibustering against civil rights legislation?

Is it politeness or ageism that defangs the past and renders an elder harmless? A 100-year-old man gets a pass on the first two-thirds of his life?

Maybe if he lives long enough, any man who fought progress can become a "living legend" in the same way that the former groper in the elevator becomes merely a "ladies' man." Did any of those C-SPAN watchers hear the joke made by a former staffer at the party? "I see so many people here today whose life Strom Thurmond has touched - and some he even squeezed." How adorable.

Lindsey Graham, who will occupy Mr. Thurmond's seat, says, "It's not fair to freeze this man in time." Eventually, Mr. Thurmond hired the first black aide in a Southern senator's office. Eventually, he voted for Martin Luther King Day. Eventually, he chose to keep his seat rather than his old ways.

But it's also not fair to edit a biography. When you clean up history, you discredit the struggle for change. You make it read as if change were inevitable. Strom Jr. said of his father, "He has a resume that reads like a snapshot of the 20th century." That includes some appalling images.

"In some ways Trent Lott has done us a favor," says Ferrel Guillory, who teaches Southern politics at the University of North Carolina. "He forced us back into confronting history."

We have trouble with that these days. In just the last weeks, we've seen the return of Henry Kissinger, Elliott Abrams and John Poindexter. Anybody remember Vietnam, Iran-contra?

Indeed, when history breaks through, it's like an unwelcome stranger. In the Supreme Court the other day, Clarence Thomas' baritone cut through the silence. Did a law against a burning cross violate the First Amendment? A burning cross, he said, is "unlike any symbol in our society. ... It was intended to cause fear and terrorize a population." Anybody remember?

Near the end of his life, the segregationist George Wallace went around seeking forgiveness, even redemption. "I am not a bad man," he would say to himself and anyone who would listen. The closest Strom Thurmond came to repentance was saying, "Times have changed." Is this what they call an unapologetic conservative?

Now Trent Lott, with a growing paper trail weighing down his political future, is expressing sorrow for "a poor choice of words" and regrets "to anyone who was offended." But Mr. Thurmond was on the wrong side of history, and so is his fan.

Maybe Mr. Lott should memorize the lesson of that other man from Mississippi, William Faulkner: "The past is never dead. It's not even past."

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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