Bush Calls Lott’s Remarks on Segregation `Offensive’

W By Richard Simon and Janet Hook

wASHINGTON – President Bush Thursday publicly scolded incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., for “offensive” remarks that seemed to endorse segregation, an unusual presidential rebuke of a fellow Republican that kept alive questions of whether Lott could lose his leadership post.

“Any suggestion that a segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong,” Bush said to loud and long applause in a speech to a racially mixed audience of religious-based charities in Philadelphia.

Lott’s office responded with a short statement apologizing – for the third time in less than a week – for his recent remarks praising the 1948 presidential campaign of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., that promoted segregation. “Sen. Lott agrees with President Bush that his words were wrong, and he is sorry. He repudiates segregation because it is immoral.”

White House officials clearly are concerned that Lott’s remarks will hinder Bush’s long-standing effort to build minority support for the GOP – a goal especially important as the White House gears up for the 2004 presidential election. The president also has been counting on Lott to play a key role in pushing the administration’s agenda through the narrowly divided Senate next year.

Bush did not call for Lott to step down as Senate Republican leader, nor have any of Lott’s GOP colleagues.

Still, Bush’s comments “are a remarkably strong admonishment coming from a president to the leader of his party in the Senate,” said Don Kettl, a University of Wisconsin political scientist.

And Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., broached the prospect that Lott’s job is in jeopardy. “Is this a big enough deal to cause a revolution in the Republican conference? I don’t think so, but these things have a way of going further than you expect.”

Increasingly this week, Lott has been subjected to the drip-drip-drip of criticism and scrutiny that often drives officials from power in Washington. Even before Bush’s comments, influential Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., on Thursday suggested the GOP leader do more to defuse the controversy, perhaps appearing at a news conference or other forum “in which he just makes clear he was wrong.”

Lugar also had harsh words about Thurmond’s presidential candidacy, saying “The country would not be better off if Sen. Thurmond had been elected. Demonstrably, we would have been much worse off. In fact, it’s unthinkable.”

A senior administration official said Bush’s remarks about the furor “came from the president’s heart,” and were “reflective of his history as a Republican who believes that inclusion is a central tenet of our nation.”

The official said Bush, in deciding to speak out, recalled a 1995 speech he made as Texas governor assailing immigrant bashing for political gain.

At that time, he was referring to California Republican Gov. Pete Wilson’s 1994 support for Prop. 187, the measure that sought to deny benefits to illegal immigrants. The initiative galvanized a backlash against Republicans within the Latino community, and many analysts view it as a key reason for the GOP’s continuing political problems in the state.

Bush said Lott’s remarks “do not reflect the spirit of our country.”

“He has apologized, and rightly so,” Bush said. He added: “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.”

White House chief of staff Andrew Card called Lott before Bush’s speech, and Lott said he agreed with the president’s comments. A Lott aide said the president and Lott spoke by phone after the speech; the aide characterized the exchange as “positive.”

Leaders of the Congressional Black Caucus, whose 38 members are all Democratic House members, on Thursday called for Lott’s censure. And the group said Bush’s refusal to seek Lott’s resignation as Republican leader “underscores the insincerity of the Republican Party’s attempt to court African Americans and other people of color.”

Lott’s hometown paper, the Mississippi Press in Pascagoula, recommended he resign his leadership post.

And Lott’s record on race continued to fuel the controversy. Time magazine reported that Lott, as a student at the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s, led efforts to keep blacks out of his fraternity.

A Lott aide said of the story: “It was 40 years ago, when our country was in a different era.”

The aide said Lott also worked to keep his fraternity out of the race riots that erupted on campus when James Meredith became the first black enrolled at the University of Mississippi.

Other reports in recent days have noted that in 1982 he opposed an extension of the Voting Rights Act and that in 1983 he voted against legislation creating a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr.

A senior Senate GOP aide said Lott is trying to weather the political storm, hoping it will calm during the holidays.

“If it doesn’t die down, I think the (Senate Republican) caucus will be forced give a vote of confidence or no confidence in him,” the aide said.

Lott left Washington early this week; his office has declined to reveal his whereabouts.

Administration officials also pressed the effort to distance the White House from Lott’s comments.

Lott, 61, has led the Senate Republicans as majority leader or minority leader since Sen. Bob Dole of Kansas stepped down in 1996 to run for president.

Lott was riding high after the November election returned control of the Senate to the Republicans and his GOP colleagues again selected him as majority leader.

But his political life took a dramatic turn last week when at Thurmond’s 100th birthday party. Lott noted that Mississippi backed Thurmond’s segregationist Dixiecrat presidential candidacy in 1948.