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Jonah Goldberg: Why Trent Lott?

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WHO SAYS the Republicans are the Stupid Party?

Huge numbers of voters told exit pollsters that they were disgusted with the nigh-upon Roman excesses of the GOP; the self-dealing, the pork-barrel spending, the aloofness was just too much. Meanwhile, strategists warned that the Republican Party was becoming too white, too male and too exclusively Southern. Ken Mehlman, the outgoing head of the Republican National Committee, declared just days after the GOP's recent thumpin', "We rely too much on white guys for our vote."

So what did the GOP senators do when they needed to pick their No. 2 man in the Senate? They shouted, "This is a job for Trent Lott!"

Recall, if you will, that Lott, the Mississippi Republican, was Senate majority leader in 2002 until he proclaimed that America would be better off if only Strom Thurmond — the Dixiecrat segregationist candidate in 1948 — had been elected president. The gale-force winds of the subsequent political maelstrom were not only enough to blow Lott from his perch as majority leader, but some witnesses actually swear they saw his hair move.

Now, I don't know if Lott's a racist, and I certainly don't believe his 2002 comments were intentionally racist. Lott's gaffe reflected something else about the man and the culture he represents. He not only thinks the Senate is a country club, he thinks members have an unlimited right to rifle the club's supply room (a.k.a. the Treasury) in the name of their constituents. A Lott colleague once said, "After pork, Trent's default position is conservative, but he likes to compromise." The inscription on his Profiles in Courage plaque almost writes itself.

Nobody disputes that Lott could be a great minority whip. He was elected precisely because he has the skills a minority whip needs: an intimate knowledge of the institution, and the ability to shake down colleagues for votes. Lott is detail oriented, collegial with an Old World gentility — as well as a certain sexual confidence befitting a former cheerleader at Ole Miss. It also should be remembered that Lott's downfall was essentially a coup orchestrated in part by a White House that didn't think Lott's Confederate nostalgia jibed well with "compassionate conservatism." Retrieving Lott from his Mississippi Elba may be the Senate's way of telling the White House, "You won't have the Senate GOP to kick around anymore."

So let us concede that he will be the consummate inside man in the Senate. Let's even concede that the paroxysm of political correctness that cost Lott his leadership post in the first place was overdone. The question remains: What are those senators smoking?

Yes, yes, Lott's defenders are right to say that most normal Americans don't know who the whip is — or even that such a position exists. But that's not the point. The job is unknown; Lott isn't. There are all sorts of obscure jobs out there, and not just in politics. But if you put famous people in them, they stop being obscure. If O.J. Simpson became recording secretary of the American Horticultural Society, you could hardly defuse the negative press by saying, "It's a really inside job."

The boys and girls in the clubhouse seem to think that what happened to Lott was unfair. "He apologized, and he paid a serious price for it," Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe said. Maybe so. But so what? It's not about him. Or at least it shouldn't be. Lott is a bad face for the Republican Party. Period. Full stop. If that's unfair to Trent, boo hoo for Trent.

Besides, the idea that fairness to Lott should supersede what's good for the Republican Party is of a piece with precisely the sort of back-scratching, log-rolling mentality that got the GOP in trouble in the first place. It bespeaks a mind-set that says, "Well, Senator so-and-so voted for my pet project, so in fairness to him, I'll vote for his." Nowhere does this calculation figure in the good of the country.

Lott's rehab is a nice story — for Lott. But it's hard to see how it will have a happy ending for the rest of us.

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jgoldberg@latimescolumnists.com

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