Memories of Trent Lott and Jesse Jackson: A teaching moment

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a weekly column by Lanny Davis, “Purple Nation,” as published in The Hill newspaper.

I watched the Harry Reid controversy play out, knowing that it would end up ok for Senator Reid.  He is a good man with a good heart.

Democrats and most African American leaders, including President Obama, quickly accepted Senator Reid’s apology for his statement to authors of the book, “Game Change,” that inferred then Senator Obama was more electable because he was as a “light-skinned Negro” without a “dialect.” They did so because Senator Reid has a long-standing record of supporting civil rights, affirmative action, and social spending programs particularly aimed at assisting the poor and people of color.

The ready acceptance of Senator Reid’s apology has been contrasted by some with the forced resignation of Senator Trent Lott as GOP Minority Leader on December 21, 2002.  On December 5, Senator Lott had toasted the late Republican Senator Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party, saying that had Mr. Thurmond won his pro-segregation 1948 presidential campaign, things would have been “better.” A few days later the toast was reported publicly, and Senator Lott immediately apologized.  But his apologies, repeated in various venues, including the TV cable station, “Black Entertainment Television,” did not save him. When the Republican White House and some of his own colleagues in the Republican Senate caucus turned against him, Senator Lott resigned his position as GOP Senate leader.

I have a special memory of this incident – one that might teach an important lesson to all of us at this particular moment in our history of heightened polarization in the congress as well as the country.

About a week after the story broke, the late and great former Republican congressman and HUD Secretary, Jack Kemp, a friend of mine for many years, called me and asked me if I’d do him a favor and take a call from Senator Lott to offer him some advice.  I was then – as I still do now – practicing law with a specialty in media and crisis management.  I said of course.

Senator Lott called a few minutes later.  He asked me if I thought he should call Rev. Jackson, who had recently called on him to resign due to his Thurmond toast. Mr. Lott said he wished to express his apology for the toast personally to Rev. Jackson and asked me whether I thought he would take the call.  I said he probably would and asked him what he wished to day.

He said, in words I can paraphrase to this day, that he was a child of a segregated community in Mississippi, and that he now realized that even a toast to a 100 year-old man that he certainly did not mean to be taken literally could be very hurtful to those who were the victims of discrimination and segregation. “I did not mean those words in my heart, Lanny,” I remember him saying.

I was moved not just by the sincerity of the Senator’s  apology but by Senator Lott’s attempt to understand why he had made such a mistake given his background.  I advised him to call Rev. Jackson and to repeat just what he had said to me.

I called Rev. Jackson and was not surprised that he immediately said he would be happy to take the Senator’s call. He asked me to come to his office to be there when the Senator called.

Less than an hour later, I was sitting in the Reverend’s office when Senator Lott phoned.   The Reverend nodded several times, said “I understand” several times.  Then I saw his expression change.  He looked up – clearly moved.  He whispered, hand over the mouthpiece:  “This is a man who has faced up to where his words came from.”

And then Rev. Jackson said back into the phone, “Senator Lott, I forgive you.  Let us pray.”  He quoted scripture concerning the flaws in all human beings, and preached that true redemption comes from opening one’s heart and facing the truth.  “Amen” I found myself saying, hearing Senator Lott’s voice over the phone saying the same word.

I hope this story is a reminder of what is possible when people with different backgrounds, ideologies, and cultures reach out to each other and look for and find common ground, even if that means compromise to win incremental change and a bipartisan consensus.

I believe this is what most Americans want today more than ever. That is what Barack Obama believes in, what he ran on, what inspired so many people to vote for him.

If Trent Lott, a son of the deep south,  and Rev. Jesse Jackson, an historic civil rights leader, were able to do in that magic moment seven years ago in a moment of prayer and humility, it can happen again today.

Lanny Davis is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of Orrick and a member of the litigation group. He writes a weekly column, “Purple Nation,” for The Hill newspaper.”