Lott, Frist, You, and Me

How not to get blindsided by history.

Trent Lott will spend the rest of his life kicking himself. And if he is even a little bit reflective, which is possible, he will be kicking himself not just for the things he said at Strom Thurmond’s birthday party in 2002, but also for the things he said and didn’t say back at the start of his political career in Mississippi in the 1960s, before he and others got blindsided by history.

We needn’t credit Lott with actual moral regret, though that is also a possibility. What is almost certain is the practical regret of a political opportunist over a missed opportunity. It would have been so easy to look like a hero instead of a villain. Heroism, in hindsight, was cheap in that place in those days: Being just a couple of inches ahead of the curve would have done it. Being an inch or two behind the curve, where practical politicians tend to cluster, turns out to have been an expensive mistake.

It’s unlikely, after all, that Lott is or ever was a principled racist. His actual views on race were probably somewhat more advanced than he once pretended and are somewhat less advanced than he pretends now. He’s been making mid-course corrections all his adult life. If only he’d made them a bit sooner. Damn, damn, damn!

No one is required to be a hero. “It was a different world back then” actually strikes me as a pretty good excuse for the moral mistakes of Lott’s career, if not for the spectacular gaffe that ended it. And even that may have been the product of foolish consistency more than the unintended exposure of deeply rooted belief. Politicians smarter and/or more cynical than Trent Lott have managed to molt old opinions as they become unacceptable and parade around in their new skins as if they’d been sporting them all their lives. George Bush the elder, for example, for example, campaigned against the Civil Rights Act in an unsuccessful bid for the Senate in 1964. He never paid any political price for this. It was a different world back then.

In trying to assess a politician, especially one who is braying about American freedom, justice, democracy, and so on, I like to ask myself: Where would this guy or gal have been in the old Soviet Union? In the gulag with the other dissidents fighting for those values, or climbing up through the power elite as this person is doing in real life? The question is unfair, of course. There’s no way of knowing how anyone might respond under duress. And it’s a test of moral backbone I have no great confidence I would pass myself. But the exercise is useful. And while the conclusion may be uncertain for any individual, it seems clearer for politicians as a group: I’m pretty certain that most of them would flunk. For that matter, so would most business leaders. Ambition and success in any system depend more on personality traits and talents that know no political boundaries than to the values of any particular political arrangement. That annoying high-school student-council president is built into human life like original sin.

Many of these people manage to survive seismic shifts even bigger than the one that toppled the Senate majority leader. Most of the political and business leaders of Russia today were climbing happily enough through the ranks of the Soviet Union 14 years ago. But inevitably, some careers get derailed. That is why cold prudence, not just warm and fuzzy idealism, recommends constant questioning of current political arrangements and moral perceptions. Assuming that moral evolution has stopped, internalizing today’s values but ignoring or opposing tomorrow’s, is a bad tactical mistake no matter how cynical you are. But how can you spot and board that next train in time to get on board before it’s too late?

Most of us are not Gandhi or Martin Luther King. We’re not going to be the first to see an injustice and believe we can change it. What folks with political ambitions can do is, to start, be open to the Kings and Gandhis and lesser visionaries. And second, be true to their own moral perceptions, if any. To have bought a ticket ahead of the crowd and then to miss the train anyway would be especially discouraging.

Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, who will be majority leader instead of Lott, is a Southern politician who avoided Lott’s tragedy by having the courage to be born a decade later. By the time he entered politics in 1994, the correct answers on the great moral test of civil rights were obvious. Or, at least, what are perceived to be the correct answers haven’t changed since then. Frist looks from afar like a decent, generous man with humanitarian instincts who doesn’t always let decency, generosity, and humanitarianism get in the way of his ambition. (“A humanitarian who doesn’t let it get in the way” might be the definition of a “compassionate conservative.”) He won his seat from an incumbent Democrat by using TV commercials full of racial innuendo. Frist is undoubtedly a better person than his use of those commercials would suggest. Does that make them better or worse?

Frist’s best-known achievements as a senator have been influencing President Bush’s so-called compromise policy on stem-cell research and leading the charge for a $500 million American contribution to international AIDS relief before amending that to $200 million. Both of these episodes can be seen as bona fide achievements made possible by pragmatic accommodation. Or they can be seen as an ambitious pol’s sellout of his own principles. I wouldn’t hazard a guess how history will see them. But if I were Frist, and for entirely pragmatic reasons, I’d give the matter some thought. It would be a pity to get blindsided like his predecessor.