Lott said: "I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
He offered no criticism of Thurmond's core message - as voiced by Thurmond himself back in 1948: "All the laws of Washington, and all the bayonets of the Army, cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches, and our places of recreation."
Lott's office has since issued three carefully worded statements, apologizing for the "impression" that he had endorsed Thurmond's 1948 views during the "lighthearted" birthday bash. But Lott's critics - who span the political spectrum - believe that the political damage has been done.
David Bositis, a nonpartisan expert on black politics who has advised the national GOP on racial issues, said yesterday: "To me, it's quite clear that Lott said what he really felt. He can claim his remarks have been misunderstood, but we know precisely what he meant."
And Joshua Micah Marshall, a liberal political analyst, contended yesterday that Lott's remarks would buttress the Democrats' ongoing efforts, within the black community, to paint the GOP as a haven for racists.
Marshall said: "It's a propaganda victory for Democrats. This can help them boost turnout among African American voters - rightly so. And for a lot of white voters, this makes the Republicans look intolerant."
No wonder so many conservatives are enraged. They're more critical of Lott than anyone else is, because they want to build bridges to blacks - they are well aware that Bush won only 8 percent of the black vote in 2000, the worst showing for a major presidential candidate since 1964 - yet they know this won't happen as long as embarrassing incidents occur.
Which is why conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg is calling Lott's remarks "incandescently idiotic.. . . On the facts, [they] were dumb. Morally, they were indefensible."
Which is why like-minded colleague David Frum is condemning "the most emphatic repudiation of desegregation to be heard from a national political figure since George Wallace."
Some Republicans, who are reluctant to openly rebuke Lott, said privately yesterday that Lott had made it much easier for Democrats and their allies to stereotype the GOP.
But Bositis, and other analysts, contend that Lott's remarks are consistent with other events that have kept most blacks from embracing the GOP over the last four decades.
Consider: Presidential nominee Barry Goldwater's opposition to the landmark civil-rights bill in 1964; Richard Nixon's 1968 "Southern strategy," inducing white Southerners' flight to the GOP; the senior George Bush's 1988 Willie Horton ads, which sowed fears of black crime; the younger Bush's shutdown of a full Florida recount in 2000; and the absence of any blacks in the GOP congressional delegation, after J.C. Watts of Oklahoma retires in January.
In addition, Lott has courted controversy before. In 1984, he gave an interview to Southern Partisan, a magazine that waxes nostalgic for the Old Confederacy. In that interview, he said the national GOP embraces the same things "that Jefferson Davis and his people believed in," referring to the Confederate president whose soldiers fought to defend slavery.
And in 1992, he sought in a speech to woo support from the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group whose most prominent members are known to be proponents of white supremacy, and foes of intermarriage and immigration. Lott told his listeners that they "stand for the right principles and right philosophy." He has since renounced the group, and even though exit polls indicate that he drew only 10 percent of the black vote in his 2000 Senate race, some analysts think his share was respectably higher.
Lott's office has declined to say what "problems" have plagued America since Thurmond's defeat, or whether his constituents are truly still "proud" that Mississippi gave Thurmond 87.2 percent of its votes. And further explanation probably won't be necessary, given the silence of so many political figures.
Yesterday, White House press secretary Ari Fleischer did issue a modest rebuke - "We were a nation that needed to change" - but said that Bush viewed Lott's apologies as the "final word" on the matter.
Lott was condemned yesterday by the NAACP, which demanded that he resign his leadership post, and the Congressional Black Caucus. But with the exception of Al Gore on Monday, and Rep. Richard Gephardt yesterday, prominent Democrats have mostly left Lott alone.
Liberal political analyst Marshall said: "Most top Democrats are in the Senate, and senators don't like to get on each other about stuff that cuts so close to the bone. It was already an open secret to them that Lott was into Jefferson Davis stuff, and they still have to work with him."
But Bositis said Lott's remarks spoke for themselves, on video: "This one will be remembered. The Republicans will be living with this for some time."
Contact Dick Polman at 215-854-4430 or email@example.com.