Arrogant Bush invites racial battle

January 10, 2003|By Jules Witcover

WASHINGTON - It certainly didn't take President Bush long to indicate his response to the political problem created by Sen. Trent Lott's reminiscences about the good old days of segregation, now that Mr. Lott has been thrown to the wolves.

Some civil rights advocates may have deluded themselves into expecting the president to be cowed by Democratic plans to put Republican race policies under a greater microscope now and thus back off his most controversial earlier judgeship nominations.

They quickly found out otherwise as he greeted the new Congress with the renomination of Mr. Lott's Mississippi friend, Charles W. Pickering Sr., a federal district judge seeking to move up to the federal appellate court in New Orleans. Senate Democrats rejected Judge Pickering last year on the basis of his record on racial issues, particularly his early criticisms of race-mixing and associations with segregationist leaders in his state.

Mr. Lott and other defenders insisted, however, that Judge Pickering's views and behavior had changed with the times. Even as Mr. Lott retreated in a gallop from his own record on race, trying to save his job as Senate Republican leader, he stuck by Judge Pickering in the interview on Black Entertainment Television, which contributed mightily to his own fall.

Mr. Bush's effort to jam Judge Pickering down the throats of Senate Democrats - and that apparently is what it will take - sends a discouraging message not only to black voters but also to moderate Republicans who had hoped the Lott affair would be a wake-up call for their party about racial politics.

These moderates saw in the fiasco a fresh opportunity to alter the party's image as the conservative white man's haven, clinging to the past to hold the Deep South as a dependable political base. Instead, the Pickering renomination is mobilizing Democratic leaders to fan even more aggressively the suspicions toward the GOP among black, liberal and other minority voters stirred anew by the Lott incident.

Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, the one Democrat whom sons of the old South most love to hate, has already said, "We will use every tool in our arsenal to ensure that [Judge Pickering's] nomination is rejected again this year." That remark, echoed by fellow Democrat Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, suggests a possible filibuster, which the 51 Republicans in the Senate would find hard to break because they would need 60 votes.

That Mr. Bush would openly invite such a fight on the very first day of the new Congress, and at the same time propose another massive program of $674 billion in tax breaks, mostly for the well-off, reveals a confidence that spills over into arrogance. While his party made gains in November that gave him control of both houses, they were minimal. And although it's true the Republicans have regained the chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will consider the nomination, House and Senate Democratic leaders, stung by their November defeat, are vowing greater confrontation this year.

Mr. Bush's gesture to white conservatives with his in-your-face renomination of Judge Pickering is a president flexing his political muscles in the most conspicuous and defiant manner. But the last thing he needs at the start of a new Congress is a diversion onto a civil rights battleground, where his party is newly vulnerable in light of the new partisan wounds opened by the Lott affair.

Mr. Lott himself is on the spot as a continuing member of the Senate. Which version will be serving from now on? Will it be the repentant Mr. Lott who now, among other things, says he completely supports affirmative action in education ? Or will it be the dug-in Mr. Lott who still stands four-square behind Judge Pickering?

Mr. Lott on opening day sat docilely among the back rows of the Senate, away from the well of the chamber, where in his imperious manner he once directed the Senate's business as majority leader. Instead of resuming his position as GOP top dog, Mr. Lott will be closely watched to see whether he will now be a man of his new word, or of his old past.

Jules Witcover writes from The Sun's Washington bureau. His column appears Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.

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