The Self Made Pundit
Friday, December 13, 2002
WHEN A BUSH FLIES: Reading President Bush’s slap-on-the wrist criticism of Trent Lott’s retroactive endorsement of Strom Thurmond and the 1948 Dixiecrats brought to mind that age-old ethical question that has divided philosophers for centuries: When an elephant flies, do you criticize him for not getting very far off the ground?
While it is all well and good that Bush has finally criticized Lott’s lament that America did not vote for a segregationist platform a half century ago, that criticism was both too late and too weak for Bush to be given any credit. After several days of White House statements that Bush accepted Lott’s half-hearted apologies, Bush finally criticized Lott yesterday:
“Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong,” Mr. Bush said as his mostly black audience of religious leaders in Philadelphia rose from their chairs and erupted in shouts of approval and long burst of applause. “Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized, and rightly so.
“Every day our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals,” the president continued. “And the founding ideals of our nation and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent was, and remains today, the equal dignity and equal rights of every American.”
After reading these noble words, who can dispute that Bush would not countenance any Republican leader that expressed hostility to civil rights for all Americans? Well, Bush can – and, through a spokesman, did – dispute it. Despite his ringing endorsement of equal rights for all, Bush wants Lott to continue as the Republican leader in the Senate:
While Mr. Bush did not address the question of whether Mr. Lott should step aside, the White House spokesman, Ari Fleischer, said in an interview after Mr. Bush's speech that “emphatically and on the record, the president doesn't think Trent Lott needs to resign.”
Now, Bush could have done the moral thing and called for Lott to step down as majority leader. Or Bush could have been wishy-washy and had a spokesman say noting more than that Lott’s continued tenure as majority leader was a matter for him and the Senate Republicans to decide. Or Bush could have been mildly supportive of Lott and have a spokesman merely say that Lott does not need to go.
Instead, Bush had Fleischer state that Bush “emphatically and on the record ... doesn’t think Trent Lott needs to resign.” Why was it necessary for Bush to express his support for Lott “emphatically”? Perhaps Bush was afraid that Republicans would think that Bush was actually serious when he mouthed those noble words and not realize that his rebuke of Lott was just a political ploy designed to end the controversy:
The White House at first tried to stay clear of the controversy, but Bush and his advisers, in meetings Wednesday night and Thursday morning, decided it could undermine their efforts to increase black support in the next election. In 2000 Bush received just 9 percent of the black vote.
“The president did Trent Lott a big favor today,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who accompanied Bush to Philadelphia. “He basically cleared the air. ... This is not an issue that divides us anymore.”
Given Bush’s endorsement of Lott’s continued leadership role, it seems clear the Bush’s toothless rebuke of him was done more for political than moral reasons. Bush is not so committed to the ideals of equality that he minds having the Senate run by a segregationist sympathizer.
While Bush deserves criticism for this lack of moral leadership, this episode offers no illumination on the age-old ethical question posed above. Unfortunately, this elephant didn’t really fly, he merely stomped around the jungle making loud noises.