December 13, 2002
Peggy Noonan Defends Trent Lott by Attacking Republicans in General...

Peggy Noonan defends Trent Lott against charges of racism by arguing that he isn't a racist, and that at Strom Thurmond's birthday party he was merely pandering to an audience by allowing them to interpret his words to believe that he shared their racist sentiments. Thus Noonan's defense of Lott requires that she argue that Lott believes that southern Republican Party activists, staffers, and legislators in general are racists whose prejudices need to be appeased.

It's a very strange argument that she makes. Why, exactly, does Trent Lott think that he is surrounded by racists who need to be appeased? That's a natural question that Peggy Noonan's defense of Lott needs to answer. Yet she drops the ball on it entirely. Her conclusion is that Trent Lott is not a racist, but is "weird" (in the sense of being mentally deranged).


OpinionJournal - Peggy Noonan: ...It is hard to believe that Trent Lott meant to suggest that segregation was OK. It's hard to believe any modern American would think that. But he left his remarks open to that interpretation. Why would a politician leave his remarks open to such a reading? Maybe it was an unthinking mistake, which would be unfortunate in its own way. But maybe it was the kind of thinking mistake politicians sometimes make. A politician will stand and address a crowd and suggest something without quite saying it. He'll leave some words out of a sentence, as if by accident, or as if he's being casual because he's surrounded by close friends. Or he won't be completely specific. He'll fade out with an ellipsis instead of completing a sentence, which leaves different members of an audience able to think that they're on his true wavelength and infer his real meaning. Different politicians at different times use this form for different reasons.

Way back in the 1950s and '70s and even '80s some Southern politicians of Mr. Lott's generation--in both parties--employed the "thinking mistake" to talk about race. So when Mr. Lott the other day emphatically but nonspecifically declared that if Strom Thurmond had been elected president, "we wouldn't have a lot of the problems we've had," a lot of people, including me, wondered if he were not making a thinking mistake. If he was, how creepy. (A childish word and insufficient, but not a bad beginning.) To whom did Mr. Lott think he was communicating? Did he think the Capitol Hill staffers and friends who attended Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party were racists who pined for the old days of separate but equal? Why would he think that?... [W]hen Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 he ran explicitly as a segregationist who would attempt to stop the civil rights revolution. He never, ever should have been elected president of the United States. It is truly weird for a person who lives in our world, in the modern world, to say otherwise...

Posted by DeLong at December 13, 2002 11:16 AM | Trackback

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It is hard to believe that Trent Lott meant to suggest that segregation was OK.

Why?

Remarks like this are being drowned out by a lifetime of contrary evidence.

Posted by: Andrew Lazarus on December 13, 2002 11:38 AM

Noonan's point: 'thinking' vs. 'unthinking' rhetoric is a serious one. As the best political speech writer of her generation, she is certainly an expert on the subject of what politicians say and don't say, and should be taken seriously on the subject. I don't see how her comments exculpate Lott (as if any morally serious explanation could)...

Posted by: Matt on December 13, 2002 11:45 AM

Peggy Noonan is the only conservative of note who even tries to offer some sort of defense for Trent Lott. Take a look at the blasting hes receiving from the National Review:

http://www.nationalreview.com/

Posted by: David Thomson on December 13, 2002 01:07 PM

This is a complete misreading of the article. It is not a defense of Lott but a rousing condemnation of him for not understanding at a gut level that the civil rights movement is "cause for joy." The fact that something is hard to believe doesn't mean it's not true--or that Noonan doesn't believe it.

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on December 13, 2002 01:12 PM

This is a complete misreading of the article. It is not a defense of Lott but a rousing condemnation of him for not understanding at a gut level that the civil rights movement is "cause for joy." The fact that something is hard to believe doesn't mean it's not true--or that Noonan doesn't believe it. She's not saying he's deranged. She's saying he lives in a different moral universe from the rest of us. It's a tough critique (and Harold Ickes is its hero).

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on December 13, 2002 01:14 PM

I guess I believe enough in common human moral values that to me ("living in a different moral universe from the rest of us") = ("mentally deranged").

I understand Noonan's point that politicians say things for two reasons: (i) they believe them, (ii) they want to imply--leave the impression--that they share an audience's views while still maintaining some plausible deniability.

But why in God's name would Lott think that a bunch of Republican activists, staffers, and legislators share Dixiecrat values? Such a belief is not an (internal) moral universe, but an (external) assessment of what the people that surround him think...


Brad

Posted by: Brad DeLong on December 13, 2002 01:23 PM

Force of habit, maybe?

Posted by: Jason McCullough on December 13, 2002 01:44 PM

Brad asks, "But why in God's name would Lott think that a bunch of Republican activists, staffers, and legislators share Dixiecrat values? Such a belief is not an (internal) moral universe, but an (external) assessment of what the people that surround him think.."


That is, I think, the point of Noonan's article--to say that Lott should not have made that assumption (the audience's stunned reaction confirms her assessment) and that there's something morally obtuse and downright un-American about anyone who'd make that assumption.


Sorry, Brad, but you can't spin this into a partisan fight. It isn't. It's civilization vs. barbarism. Lott's only prominent friends are other members (of both parties) of the tight little club called the U.S. Senate.


Posted by: Virginia Postrel on December 13, 2002 02:03 PM

I guess I believe enough in common human moral values that to me ("living in a different moral universe from the rest of us") = ("mentally deranged").


This would imply that evil people are not guilty by reason of insanity. I doubt you believe that.

Posted by: Virginia Postrel on December 13, 2002 02:09 PM

Virginia please. to quote Josh Marshall:

"The truth is that everyone who's sentient and even remotely keeps up on politics has known about this stuff for years -- at least since the last Trent Lott-segregation scandal broke back in late 1998. Sad to say, everyone just agreed not to pay attention, not to care. "

This is a partisan issue, because it fits in with the long history of Republican appeals to white resentment and Old South nostalgia. Unfortunatley these things appeal to a siginificant part of the base of the Republican party in the South. Otherwise why did Reagan start his presidential campaign in Philadelphia, MS? Why the kowtowing to Bob Jones University that occurs every Republican presidential primary season? You libertarian blogosphere types are not the only ones in the conservative movement, you know.

When Lott made his speech, before the sentence that got him into trouble, he first said this:

"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president we voted for him. We're proud of it."

The audience *cheered*.... it was only after Lott's next sentence made the implication of what he was saying explicit that the audience went silent.

Trent's Lott's mistake was saying forthrightly what is usually only implied with a wink and a nudge.

Posted by: RC on December 13, 2002 03:14 PM

Re:

>>This would imply that evil people are not guilty by reason of insanity. I doubt you believe that.<<

I do... At some level, I really do... After all, who with a clear head would ever choose to become the kind of person that, say, Bernard Law has become?... Socrates agrees with me. That should count for something...


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on December 13, 2002 04:19 PM


This is a complete misreading of the article. It is not a defense of Lott but a rousing condemnation of him for not understanding at a gut level that the civil rights movement is "cause for joy."

I'm not sure Virginia.... I think you're right to argue that Noonan wants to depoliticize the civil rights movement (although it seems revisionist for her to imply that it was ever a broad moral movement instead of a partisan political one).

Still... she clearly implies that Lott's "thinking mistake" was "[leaving] his remarks open to interpretation". The error is implied to be his failure to make his racial tolerance clear, not a strategic attempt to pander to the racial biases of his audience (the point Brad skewers above). It is "the kind of thinking mistake politicians sometimes make." After all, Lott couldn't really be a racist as that would be creepy and truly wierd.

On the bright side, at least she didn't just trot out the good man defense.

Posted by: david on December 13, 2002 05:05 PM

"The fact that something is hard to believe doesn't mean it's not true--or that Noonan doesn't believe it."

The fact that somebody says something is hard to believe doesn'nt mean it is hard to believe--or that Noonan believes that it is hard to believe.

"It is not a defense of Lott but a rousing condemnation of him."

Rousing?

"But he left his remarks open to that interpretation."

"Maybe it was an unthinking mistake..."

"...how creepy."

"It is truly weird for a person who lives in our world, in the modern world, to say otherwise..."

Doesn't sound all that rousing to me.

Posted by: nameless on December 13, 2002 05:41 PM

I must take exception to Virginia's remark that it's not a partisan issue.

Of course it is. Lott is the Senate Majority Leader. As such, part of his responsibility is to articulate GOP positions on issues. Holding that job, he must be aware that what he says publicly will at least reflect on that party, and may with some degree of accuracy be taken as a statement of position by that party.

Posted by: Chuck Nolan on December 13, 2002 07:57 PM

Partisan usually implies that there's one party lined up on one side and the other party lined up opposite. In this case, most members of both parties think that Lott's actions are deplorable.

This situation is truly bizarre, because all the conservatives, libertarians and republicans I know despise Lott and want him dismissed forthwith . . . . . but the idiot clubby republican senators don't seem to have the guts to make the push necessary. To the extent this is partisan, it's only because the savvy democrats and liberals recognize how much it is to their political advantage for Lott to keep his post.

So Cardinal Law is not guilty by reason of insanity? That position seems hard to defend even if Socrates approves. Almost no one I know set out to become precisely what they've become . . . . but the cumulative weight of thousands of small decisions and character judgements add up as time passes and a course is traveled even if not consciously charted. If society doesn't hold individuals fully responsible for the choices they've made and the paths they've traveled (especially the truly reprehensible ones), on what basis are we to conduct ourselves?

Posted by: Anarchus on December 14, 2002 07:37 AM

What about you ally Tom Daschle? I don't have to spin his comments -- he actually did defend Lott.

Posted by: FAHagen on December 14, 2002 09:38 AM

Trent Lott has fought every legislative efforts at civil rights progress. Trent Lott has rued the New Deal and Great Society economic advances as well.

Of course Senator Lott meant what he said, though he no doubt wishes he had not said it. Of course this is a political-partisan issue. What is needed is for Mississippians to realize that political leaders such as Lott have assured the state will be the poorest in America, and work to elect leaders who will represent the needs of all Mississippians.

The rest of us need to assure that such legislators do not undo the likes of Social Security and Medicare and decades of civil rights progress.

Posted by: on December 14, 2002 02:11 PM

>>So Cardinal Law is not guilty by reason of insanity?<<

I also don't believe in "not guilty by reason of insanity": if you did it, and you wanted to do it, the fact that you are insane doesn't seem to bear on your guilt or moral responsibility...


Brad DeLong

Posted by: Brad DeLong on December 14, 2002 04:44 PM

What about you ally Tom Daschle? I don't have to spin his comments -- he actually did defend Lott
Daschle didn't defend Lott (and most definitely did not defend his statement)...he excused Lott (much to our chagrin).
There is a difference...even in this age of No Moral Equivalence.

Posted by: Sam Jackson on December 14, 2002 07:33 PM
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