Trent Lott thinks people need to lighten up.
“I just think you need to give people a pass on a phrase or a word every now and then,” Lott said.
The former Senate Majority Leader from Mississippi, who strode the halls of the Capitol at the height of power for many years, was back in his old haunts Thursday.
Lott was there to celebrate Seersucker Thursday, an event he created in 1996 and called, tongue in cheek, “one of my greatest achievements in the Senate.”
But questions about current events struck a nerve with Lott, who was forced to give up his leadership post in December 2002, after two weeks of controversy over comments he made that were interpreted as endorsing segregation.
Asked about Paul, the Republican Senate candidate in Kentucky, Lott said he has “sympathy” for him and the political damage he has suffered over race-related comments.
“I had some sympathy for him because I’ve been there,” Lott told the Daily Caller.
Paul came under heavy criticism in May when he did a series of interviews with national media and indicated that he thought the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional because it gave the federal government too much power over private businesses. Paul groveled publicly, saying he would have voted for the Act in 1964, and has since tried to keep his head down and stay out of the national spotlight.
But the incident has hurt him, helping his Democrat opponent Jack Conway in the polls and fueling attempts by some Democrats to portray the Tea Party movement as racist.
Lott said that Paul “opened the door” to questions by talking about the Civil Rights Act in a series of interviews but said he “handled it well.”
“They’re going to have to deal with very hostile questions from the media,” Lott said of the Tea Party movement. “I just hope the media will ask just as hostile questions from the left wing kooks, of MoveOn.org and some of these other people.”
Lott’s situation parallels Paul’s in the sense that both men feel they were unfairly labeled as racists for comments they regarded to be innocuous. Lott praised Sen. Strom Thurmond at a birthday party by saying that if the South Carolina Republican had won the presidency in 1948 “we wouldn’t have had all these problems.” The problem was that Thurmond ran on a pro-segregation “Dixiecrat” ticket.
Lott, days before he gave up his leadership position, said that his comments were “totally unacceptable and insensitive, and I apologize.”
Lott stayed in the Senate and rose back to the position of Senate Minority Whip before deciding not to run for reelection in 2006.
He also defended Svanberg, BP’s chairman, over his comment this week that the oil company “cares about the small people.”
“Geemeny, I thought when I heard that, ‘Uh oh man,’” Lott said. “I think part of it was a language thing, instead of saying poor people or people who have lost their jobs. He might have even been thinking small business, small business people. But it didn’t’ come out that way.”
But Lott said the Paul incident and the Svanberg incident were part of a larger pattern where the media overreacts to something that is said and then generates political pressure through the volume of its own echo chamber.
“The gotcha stuff that goes on now,” Lott said.