WASHINGTON – Trent Lott wanted to honor his friend, retiring Sen. Strom Thurmond, and he never meant to imply that he supported Thurmond's segregationist policies of the past, the incoming Senate majority leader said Thursday.
"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 am sorry for my words, they were poorly chosen and insensitive and I regret the way it has been interpreted," he told radio host Sean Hannity.
Lott gave the interview just hours before an Associated Press report surfaced, saying that Lott tried to help Bob Jones University keep its federal tax-exempt status despite the school's policy prohibiting interracial dating two decades before his recent comments stirred a race controversy.
"Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy," Lott, then a congressman from Mississippi, wrote in a 1981 friend of the court brief that cited prior court rulings upholding affirmative action programs at colleges.
Lott's filing unsuccessfully urged the U.S. Supreme Court to stop the Internal Revenue Service from stripping the university's tax exemption.
"This was a mistake of the head, not of the heart because I don't accept those policies of the past at all," Lott said of his earlier comments on Thurmond, paraphrasing a quote from the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Lott drew heat this week for remarks he made at the South Carolina Republican's birthday party last Thursday. At the tribute on Capitol Hill, Lott said that the country would have been a better place if Thurmond had won the presidency in 1948. That year, Thurmond ran on a segregationist ticket.
"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," Lott said.
Lott, who continues to face harsh criticism for the remarks nearly a week after they were made, said he was referring to the former Dixiecrat's position on foreign and economic policy.
"When I think back about Strom Thurmond over the years, what I have seen was a man who was for a strong national defense, economic development and balanced budgets and opportunity and that's the kinds of things that I really had in mind," he said.
As it turns out, Lott's remarks about Thurmond weren't his first.
At a 1980 rally for presidential candidate Ronald Reagan in Jackson, Miss., then-Rep. Lott made a similar statement as he and Thurmond warmed up the crowd.
"You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today," The Jackson Clarion Ledger quoted Lott as saying about Thurmond in their Nov. 3, 1980, edition.
Lott said his remark in 1980 referred to Thurmond's strong national defense policy, particularly in light of the conflict with Iran.
Lott and Thurmond have long been friends, and the incoming majority leader said his comments were meant to demonstrate the value he drew from the relationship.
"It basically is saying 'You know, you would've made a great president.' You know, he lights up, he smiles at that. That's the vein it was in. It was never intended to say it was because of the policies you were advocating in 1948, because of a lifetime of service and things he has done. So, what are you going to say, 'I wish you had lost?'"
Lott's contrition immediately won over Rep. Mike Pence, R-Ind.
"He spoke of the exuberance of just making a 100-year-old man feel good," Pence said.
But Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick, D-Mich., a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, said she wasn't so convinced.
"I am thankful for the senator's apology. He needed to do that," Kilpatrick told Fox News.
"But we need leadership to bring us together, not tear us apart and I am not sure he can do that," she said, describing Lott's remarks as "outrageous" and "disgusting."
Prior to Lott's conversation with Hannity, who is co-host of Hannity & Colmes on Fox News Channel, and Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle came out for the third time this week to comment on Lott's remarks.
"It is profoundly disturbing that Sen. Lott's statement last week was not an isolated incident. Such statements were unacceptable in 1980, and they are no less so today," Daschle said in a written statement.
"In light of today's news and the growing controversy, Sen. Lott should come forward with a fuller explanation and apology. The question Sen. Lott needs to answer is, if he did not mean to endorse segregation, what did he mean?"
However, Daschle defended Lott on Monday, saying he accepted Lott's explanation that he hadn't meant for the remarks to be interpreted as they were.
"There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently, and I'm sure this was one of those cases for him, as well," Daschle said.
On Wednesday, the four Republican appointees of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights also issued a statement "deploring" Lott's remarks.
"This is a particularly shameful remark coming from a leader of the Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, and the party that supported all of these essential steps forward far more vigorously than did the Democratic Party, which at the time was the home of congressional southerners committed to white supremacy," said the statement signed by Abigail Thernstrom, Jennifer C. Braceras, Peter N. Kirsanow and Russell G. Redenbaugh.
Lott originally issued a two-sentence apology.
"A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past," he said in a statement. "Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize to anyone who was offended by my statement."
But after the news Wednesday that Lott had in fact used the same "poor choice of words" before, Lott said that his comments conveyed things that he did not intend and he hoped to move on to issues that could help people across the country like economic opportunity, community renewal, election and education reform.
Lott colleague Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., also said the Republican leader's comments shouldn't be misconstrued.
"I know Trent Lott very well from working with him in the Senate for the last fourteen years and can vouch for the fact that he is no supporter of Sen. Thurmond's 1948 platform. His comment was an inadvertent slip and his apology should end the discussion."
Nonetheless, members of the Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights activists have exploded over the statement, demanding a bigger apology and suggesting Lott step down as majority leader.
"I'm very concerned and very upset that anybody that would issue such a statement would be in the leadership of this nation or the Senate," Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., the incoming chairman of the CBC, said Tuesday.
"I consider this as a Democratic Party issue" and that the party must "take into consideration what message this and other kinds of statements are sending to the African American community," Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., said Tuesday.
"I'm very, very troubled at the attitude expressed in his remarks," especially since Lott is fourth in line for the presidency, said Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif. "I think he needs to step down and I'm going to do all I can to see that that occurs."
On Wednesday, Republican National Committee Chairman Mark Racicot agreed to meet with Rev. Al Sharpton, founder of the National Action Network, though he added in a missive to Sharpton that he thinks Lott's apology speaks for itself.
"In reference to Sen. Lott's remark, he has, as you know, extended his regret and sincere apology. That, I believe, was the proper course to follow," Racicot said in an e-mail to Sharpton released by Sharpton's office. The two may try to get together on Friday, ensuring the issue will stay in the spotlight another day.
When asked what President Bush thought of the whole affair Tuesday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said of Lott, "he has apologized for his statement and the president understands that that is the final word from Sen. Lott."
Fleischer said Bush thinks Americans take pride in the "tremendous strides and changes and improvements" that have been made in race relations since 1948. "We were a nation that needed to change," Fleischer said.
New York Post columnist Robert A. George argued Tuesday that Lott's comment was "no fluke."
"Lott has a record, unmatched by any other current leading Republicans, of paying homage to a romanticized view of the 'Old South,'" George wrote. Lott "doesn't seem to care" that he is leaving a trail of what some consider to be off-handed racially charged comments, he added.
Andrew Sullivan, who runs "The Daily Dish" online, wrote: "it seems to me that the Republican Party has a simple choice. Either they get rid of Lott as majority leader; or they should come out formally as a party that regrets desegregation and civil rights for African-Americans."
Although he conceded that Lott probably didn't mean the words the way they came out, David Frum of the National Review wrote, "What came out of his mouth was the most emphatic repudiation of desegregation to be heard from a national political figure since George Wallace's first presidential campaign."
Lott, who will become Senate majority leader when the next Congress convenes in January, had issued an earlier statement denying support for Thurmond's past positions.
"My comments were not an endorsement of his positions of over 50 years ago, but of the man and his life," he said.
Thurmond, then-governor of South Carolina in 1948, ran for president as a states' rights and anti-integration Dixiecrat, opposing the civil rights policies of President Truman. He captured 39 southern electoral votes, including those of Mississippi.
Thurmond's party ran under a platform that declared in part, "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."
Thurmond entered the Senate in 1954 and became one of the South's most vocal opponents of integration. He changed positions later in his career, hiring black staffers and helping promote blacks to federal judgeships.
Kevin L. Martin, government and political affairs director of the African American Republican Leadership Council, said people were overreacting to Lott's remarks.
"By no means was he endorsing segregation or anything like that. It was lighthearted, it was humorous." Martin said Lott captures 25 percent of the black vote in Mississippi, which he said couldn't happen if Lott were a racist.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and the AP contributed to this report.