Southern strategy

January 09, 2003

WHEN TRENT LOTT took a pratfall over the little matter of America's segregationist past, one welcome result seemed to be the end of the White House effort to name U.S. District Judge Charles W. Pickering to a federal appellate court.

Judge Pickering, of Hattiesburg, Miss., had already been rejected once by the Senate Judiciary Committee for what looked like a mighty peculiar intervention a few years ago on behalf of a cross-burner, and for a paper he wrote as a young man urging a firming-up of his state's anti-miscegenation laws.

His identification as Mr. Lott's chosen man for the post appeared, in the past month, to be his undoing. Race had suddenly become an issue again, and a potentially poisonous one. Surely, the thinking went, the White House would steer clear of stirring up any more trouble on that front.

But, no - barely hours after the new Republican-controlled Congress had sat down on Tuesday, there was Judge Pickering's name being submitted once again. And there were Republican senators - the new leader, Bill Frist, among them - singing hosanas to the man from Mississippi.

What gives? The public explanation is this: President Bush and his allies believe they deftly inoculated themselves against suspicions of racial prejudice by coming down hard on Mr. Lott and pushing him aside as Senate majority leader.

They've got moral standing, in their own eyes, so who could question their motives now? Troubling questions about race? They don't matter anymore. The White House is now immune. Mr. Lott's downfall didn't hurt the Pickering nomination at all; to the contrary, it made it possible.

Conservative propaganda also holds that Judge Pickering was done wrong by Senate Democrats last year, that he's a fine man who was turned into a caricature of a Southern racist. There were extenuating circumstances in that cross-burning case, this argument contends, and the substance of the man was unfortunately overshadowed by the image his critics created.

Two replies. First, Mr. Lott's case suggests that fine Southern men with racist pasts aren't always strictly accurate about having shed those pasts. The benefit of the doubt only goes so far.

Second, yes, the Pickering nomination was turned into a symbol. And however much subsequent investigation shows him to be kind to pets and small children, it's still a symbol. It's a symbol of the Bush administration's determination to push for everything it can get, to cram its agenda down its critics' throats. Judge Pickering was the worst of the president's nominations last year, and it was surely no accident that his name showed up on one of the very first messages to the new Congress.

And it symbolizes something else - that just in case anyone down in Dixie feared the White House was going soft after this Lott business, now there can be no doubts. We're not even talking winks and nods here - it's more like a billboard.

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