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Sen. Lott Speaks About Controversial Remarks

This is a partial transcript of an interview with Sen. Trent Lott on Dec. 11, 2002, that has been edited for clarity. Click here to order the complete transcript.

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SEAN HANNITY, FOX ANCHOR: Well, welcome to this segment of the program. The FOX News channel is carrying this portion of the program and we are joined now on our newsmaker line by Senator Trent Lott, obviously in the midst of a controversy.

Senator, hello. How are you? Welcome to the program.

TRENT LOTT, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: Well, thank you very much, Sean, I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you and answer questions, and I'm glad others are listening in to get my response.

HANNITY: Yes, I understand that, and we welcome everybody aboard. Now, let's start. You got involved in this controversy as of last Thursday, speaking at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday celebration, when you said the following.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LOTT: 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.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HANNITY: What did you mean by all this, Senator?

LOTT: Well, first of all, I wanted to honor Strom Thurmond, the man, who was turning 100 years old. He certainly has been a legend in the Senate, both in terms of his service and the length of his service. It was certainly not intended to endorse his segregationist policies that he might have been advocating, or was advocating, 54 years ago.

But obviously I'm sorry for my words. They were poorly chosen and insensitive, and I regret that I have had that — the way it's been interpreted, actually. I think that — when I think back about Strom Thurmond over the years, what I've seen is a man that was for strong national defense and economic development and balanced budgets and opportunity, and that's the kinds of things that I really had in mind.

But the words were terrible and I regret that, and you know, I can almost say that this was a mistake of the head, not of the heart, because I don't accept those policies of the past at all.

HANNITY: Well, maybe we can analyze a little bit of the statement here. When you said you voted for him and that you're proud of it, and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over these years, what problems are you talking about and what did you mean by, "we're proud of it."

LOTT: Well, first of all, I was seven years old when he ran for president. On the ticket with him was, I think then the governor, or recently retired governor of our state, a guy named Fielding Wright.

HANNITY: Right.

LOTT: And so that was many, many years ago. When I think of Strom Thurmond, I'm talking about defense issues. If you look back at that time, which was 1948, defense was a big issue. We were coming out of the war, of course, but we also were dealing with Communism and then in the '80s, you know, when I talked about Strom again, we were talking about the problem in Iran, talking about deficits over the years, strong law enforcement speeches.

I remember when I first got to the Senate, one of the first speeches I ever heard Strom give was talking about the need to have strong law enforcement to protect the people, all of the people. And also, I have a memory of Strom promoting economic development in South Carolina, as have others there in that state. So those are the kinds of things where we've had problems over the years with defense, budgets, you know, law enforcement. I think we could have done a better job.

And by the way, Strom also over the years has repudiated some of the positions and has become very progressive in the things he's advocated. In fact, he was one of the leaders in promoting additional funding for historical black colleges and universities, which I've also done and will continue to do.

HANNITY: When — I guess some of the criticism has come — some people were not happy with your original apology. You sent out a two sentence statement that said it was a "poor choice of words that conveyed to some the impression that I embraced discarded policies of the past." You said,"nothing could be further from the truth, I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."

Did you mean to discarded...

LOTT: Well, let me address that. I think the impression is that I was apologizing for those that might have been offended. Let me rephrase that. I apologize for the words, and I'm sorry that I used words that were insensitive, and it conveyed an impression that is not an accurate one. So I think I — once again, I'm saying now that it was not intended just to say, "I'm sorry if you didn't like it." I, you know, I regret it.

HANNITY: Let me ask this question, though. There now are these reports that came out just in the last 24 hours that you made almost the exact same statement in 1980. And some — what do you say to those that say, "Well, this is not just a one-time statement. Obviously you meant it because you said it once before."

LOTT: Well, I've always, you know, kidded Strom Thurmond about the kind of job he has done and what he has stood for, and it basically is saying, "You know, you would have made a great president." He lights up, he smiles at that. That's the vein that it was in. It was never intended to say, "Because of the policies you were advocating in 1948." It's because of a lifetime of service and things that he has done. So that, again, is just a way — what are you going to say, "I wish you'd lost"?

But really is just typical of a friendly relationship with Strom Thurmond.

HANNITY: When you look at some of the comments that many people have made, let me run some of them by you. I guess former Vice President Al Gore called the comment a racist statement and said you should be censured for this. What do you say to Gore? We've had Jesse Jackson out there criticizing you sharply, the Reverend Al Sharpton. Members of the Black Congressional Caucus have been very critical.

Is there anything specifically you want to say to them?

LOTT: Well, I don't want to get into responding to each one of them by name. The main thing I want to say to them, and people all across the country, that my comments conveyed things that I did not intend, and I regret it. And, you know, I apologize for it. And I would hope that we could move on from that and move to things that we can do to help the people all across this country, economic opportunity for everybody, community renewal, which is something that's important for people of all races and income levels, work to make sure we have election reforms that guarantees that people have an opportunity and a right to vote, and the funds to pay for it. Put more money in the education, so that really no child is left behind. That's the best way to show how you really feel, is by doing things that will open up the opportunity for people all across our state.

In my own state of Mississippi I have reached out to minorities. I have a program at Jackson State University that is actually named in my honor. I spoke at the commencement of Alcorn State University two or three years ago. I've made — you know, I have had numbers of African American interns on my staff, employees, you know, I've appointed them to national position. I appointed an African American woman to the National Community Service Board. A longshoreman, an African American man, a democrat, a union member, to the National Labor Standards Board.

And I've made it a real point to make sure we have input from all the sectors of the economy, and I'm not saying I couldn't do better, and I want to continue to work on that. Because that's the best thing to do, to help all people, regardless of their ethnic, religious, or racial backgrounds, to give them the opportunity to live the American dream. Which I have lived, by the way. I'm the son of a sharecropper myself. My dad raised cotton on somebody else's land. I didn't grow up in a fancy neighborhood, you know, going to the country clubs. I grew up in a blue collar, shipyard, pipe-fitter union member family. My mother was a schoolteacher in a blue collar family, and I understand that you need economic opportunity in America, you need a quality education everywhere, regardless of race or background.

And those are the key things that I advocate. And I believe that those people that you mentioned say, "Yes, we need to do those things." And I'm going to be continuing to work on that as we work with the Bush administration to encourage growth and more jobs and better paying jobs in America.

HANNITY: Have you reached out to any members of the Congressional Black Caucus?

LOTT: Yes. I've talked to the outgoing leader of the Congressional Black Caucus, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, and I've spoken two or three times to the incoming chairman, Elijah Cummings, and of course they've got a job to do, a leadership job, and they've got a number of people that they need to converse with. But I have talked with them, and I think we've had good conversations. I've answered their questions and pointed out some of the things that I just pointed out to you about what I have done in my own office and in my own career in terms of making sure that we had involvement and participation by African Americans in my own staffing and in my appointments.

HANNITY: I want you to just — to address this one issue that has been brought up by your critics. You had this controversy some years ago. You spoke to a group called the Concerned Citizens Council. You want to explain that? What, if any, relationship do you or did you have with that organization, which has been accused of having racist points of view?

LOTT: Well, the event they are talking about, I presume, was an open forum for candidates running for public office. And the public was invited, the media was invited. This was not a closed thing. There were Democrats and Republicans there, and African Americans there. And it was one of those events that you have almost every two years when you have important elections at a small community — you have them all over the state.

You don't usually ask who's sponsoring this thing. Now, in this case, I knew some of the people that were involved, but I also knew that a lot of political candidates were going there, and I said, you know, the things that we support in terms of opportunity for people there that I'd say anyplace else. But the main thing was, it was an open forum.

HANNITY: Let me ask this — I've not heard a Republican senator or any elected official call for your resignation as the incoming senate majority leader or anything like that, but I have heard some pundits, including some Republicans, do so. The bottom line appears that you've created a political problem for the Republican party, your party, which is trying to reach out to minorities.

What do you say to those within your party that are very critical of you right now, and upset with you?

LOTT: Well, once again, I think in this season that we are approaching here, when you cause pain or fears in people, and you ask for forgiveness and say you made a mistake, and that this was a mistake of the head, not of the heart, and that we need to focus on the things that are really important for the future of our country, I hope that they would give me a chance to do that.

I regret it not only just because of the words I used, but because it has become a distraction from the things we really want to be focusing on that really would help the people of all backgrounds in the country. So that would be what I'd say.

HANNITY: To what extend do you think this is being driven by politics. For example, Tom Daschle, Monday, came to your defense. He said, quote, "There are a lot of times when both of you go to the microphone, would like to say things that you meant to say differently." I'm sure that that was one of the cases for you in this case. And then he came out with a much stronger statement after he was criticized by some people. Is it politics? Is there a double standard on issues like this?

LOTT: You know, Sean, I think my attitude right now is, that's for others to judge or comment on. You know, I think I should not get into that. I've said what I really intended and how I really feel, and I think — hopefully, others will accept that and that we will be able to move on to other issues that as a matter of fact help to address some of the needs that people are talking about, in (ph) this very instance.

HANNITY: Yeah, what — where do you go from here? For example, if we bring up the ex-President Clinton, or former President Clinton's relationship with J. William Fulbright, and even in October he went to a — he was a known segregationist, and had words of praise for him. Is the media involved in a double standard, in your estimation?

LOTT: Well, again, I'll let other people make that judgment. You know, sometimes when you praise people too much — I went to the floor of the Senate not too long ago and said words of praise for Paul Wellstone. Now, did that mean I was endorsing his positions in the Senate? No. What it meant was, this is a man who served the people, he was killed in a plane accident, and he was always courteous to me and friendly, and so that was the, I thought, the human and the right thing to do. That's why I went to his memorial services, because I thought it was the right thing to do. And quite often we do become too exuberant in our endorsements of people that perhaps we work with or that are retiring or it had been birthdays, in this case.

So others clearly have made that sort of mistake. I mean, this quote I talked about, mistake of the head, not of the heart, was actually a quote, as I understand it, from Jesse Jackson, in 1994.

HANNITY: Yes, right.

LOTT: It's a very thoughtful statement. I don't even remember what the occasion was, but he basically said it was an error of word, temperament, or tone, caused discomfort, and he asked for forgiveness.

HANNITY: Do you think we're not forgiving enough? Do you think we don't give people an opportunity when things are said? You obviously now have apologized profusely at this point. Do you think we don't give people that chance anymore, do you think we're too quick to jump on...

LOTT: I don't know, I think that the American people — I think the American people are inclined to do that. They understand we all make mistakes and that particularly when you're in public life, you make hundreds of statements, you use thousands of words, you use the wrong word, a wrong phrase, it gets you in serious trouble.

And I think the populous, the general public understands that, and that sometimes it is dwelled on and, you know, it does become a furor. But I think that at some point, the people themselves recognize how tough the job is, and you should be focused on the future, not on the past. And that's why I say these policies of 1948, you know, they were wrong then, they've been repudiated. We've moved so far beyond that.

HANNITY: Is there anything else you want to add, Senator, because I think more than anything else — I was saying this before you came on, I think people want to hear what's in your heart, and obviously you've expressed it, but is there anything else you'd like to add?

LOTT: Well, no, just that I appreciate the opportunity to speak to you and for those that are listening in on this, and I hope they understand how I truly feel and that we can now move on and deal with issues that will solve the very problems we've been talking about.

HANNITY: Senator, we always enjoy having you on. Thank you for being with us. Merry Christmas to you and your family.

LOTT: Thank you very much, Sean, same to you.