WASHINGTON – The controversial comments made by Sen. Trent Lott at Sen. Strom Thurmond's birthday bash last week were "offensive" and "do not reflect the spirit of our country," President Bush said Thursday.
Lott, a Republican from Mississippi and incoming Senate majority leader, has been catching a lot of political heat for the remarks he made during the South Carolina Republican's 100th birthday party, which implied support for Thurmond's 1948 segregation platform.
Saying Lott has "apologized and rightly so," Bush said "any suggestion that the segregated past is acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong.
"Every day that our nation was segregated was a day that America was unfaithful to our founding ideals," the president said.
Bush made his remarks before signing an executive order on faith-based initiatives. He received a standing ovation from the predominantly minority crowd that has been at the forefront of faith-based social services.
The president's comments, however, weren't enough to soothe irate members of the Congressional Black Caucus, who charged that "it is unacceptable that the [Republican] party leadership would allow Sen. Lott's statements to go by without unequivocal renunciation."
The CBC, which is calling for a censure vote against Lott, said that the president needs to take the lead in calling for Lott's resignation as majority leader.
"While the president broke his week-long silence today regarding this matter, it is astounding that he has not called for Sen. Lott to step aside as incoming majority leader. This lack of leadership underscores the insincerity of the Republican party's attempt to court African Americans and other people of color," the CBC leadership said in a written statement.
On Thursday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer attempted to step back from the debate, saying, "The president expressed his thoughts yesterday, he spoke forcefully and said a lot."
Fleischer said the president would decline from getting into every "shade and nuance" of the debate. On Wednesday, the White House said that "the president does not think that Lott should resign" from his majority leader post, which he is scheduled to take over next month.
Lott's spokesman said the senator agreed with Bush's remarks.
"Sen. Lott agrees with President Bush that his words were wrong and he is sorry. He repudiates segregation because it is immoral," the spokesman said.
Privately, White House officials said the comments by Bush, Fleischer and Lott were orchestrated to distance Bush and his party from Lott's remarks while giving the senator a chance to retain his leadership post. It's now up to Lott and his fellow senators to decide whether he should retain his position, said one Bush adviser.
The advisers said Bush feared Lott's remarks -- if left without rebuke -- would undermine the president's efforts to expand his party's support among minorities, particularly blacks. They also said they tried to turn Lott's gaffe as an opportunity for Bush to soften the Republican image.
Lott apologized several times, saying his words were "terrible" and "insensitive." But many, mostly Democratic groups, CBC members and the American Federation of State, County and Municipals Employees are calling for Lott to step down from his post as majority leader -- the number four lawmaker in line for the presidency.
Compounding Lott's problems are recent reports of activities in his past that appear to support such a policy prescription.
Lott told Time magazine more than five years ago that he supported segregation while a student at the University of Mississippi, when U.S. marshals brought the first black student to the school.
Lott reportedly led the effort in his all-white fraternity to prevent integration. The Sigma Nu fraternity voted to continue supporting segregation. That policy changed years later.
Critics have also listed such past actions as his 1983 vote against a federal holiday for Martin Luther King Jr., his 1982 vote against the Voting Rights Act extension and his efforts to restore Confederate president Jefferson Davis' citizenship.
In 1981, he quoted court rulings upholding affirmative action programs at colleges in order to defend a dating ban between black and white students at Bob Jones University.
At the time, Bob Jones, a Christian university that changed its policy following the uproar that accompanied 2000 presidential candidate George W. Bush's visit there, was close to losing its tax-exempt status.
The case went to the Supreme Court. Lott wrote a friend-of-the-court filing that said, "Racial discrimination does not always violate public policy."
"If racial discrimination in the interest of diversity does not violate public policy, then surely discrimination in the practices of religion is no violation," he argued in asking the justices to block the IRS from stripping the school's tax exemption.
The Supreme Court ruled 8-1 to strip the school of its tax exemption about two years after Lott filed his brief.
Lott has also been tied to the Council of Conservative Citizens, successor of the 1960's White Citizens Councils of the South.
In 1992, Lott spoke to a CofCC group in Mississippi and said, "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy. Let's take it in the right direction, and our children will be the beneficiaries."
He has since sought to distance himself from CofCC, which this week filed a friend-of-the-court brief defending cross burning as free speech. The Supreme Court heard the case on Wednesday.
As recently as Nov. 16, CofCC passed a resolution praising Lott for his support of putting U.S. troops on the border to "protect our country against the invasion of illegal aliens."
While the CBC has called for Lott's censure, and other Democratic lawmakers, including Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and John Kerry of Massachusetts, have suggested he resign his leadership post, Republicans appear to be circling the wagons.
"The president did Trent Lott a big favor today,'' Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., who accompanied Bush to Philadelphia, said. "He basically cleared the air. ... This is not an issue that divides us anymore.''
"I think Senator Lott has already fixed it,'' said Lott's Mississippi colleague, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran. "He's explained that he didn't mean to be endorsing any policies of the past, particularly the segregationist platform that Strom Thurmond ran on in '48."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, said that it is critical that Lott explain his views more thoroughly but "Having worked with Sen. Lott for 24 years in both the House and Senate, if I had ever sensed that his recent remarks accurately reflected his beliefs, I would not have supported him for any leadership position, or served in his leadership organizations."
Lott, who has a 30-year career in the House and the Senate, rose to the position of Senate Republican leader and majority leader in 1996 when Bob Dole quit the Senate to concentrate on his run for the White House. His Senate colleagues re-elected him without opposition last month.
On Wednesday, Lott denied that he was referring to Thurmond's segregationist leanings in his birthday speech.
At the event, 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."
Though Lott gave a tepid apology a few days later, news came out that he made similar remarks in 1980 at a rally for then-presidential candidate Ronald Reagan.
He then apologized more fully.
"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 told radio and Fox News Channel host Sean Hannity.
Fox News' Carl Cameron and The Associated Press contributed to this report.