It was only a few weeks ago that the Republican Party had whipped itself into a frenzy over Trent Lott's remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party. 'We are not racists!' they cried in unison. Senators and House members denied that the party in any way tries to appeal to the types of people Lott was clearly courting with his remarks. George W. Bush condemned Lott's statements and solemnly proclaimed, 'We must continue our advance toward full equality for every citizen, which demands the guarantee of civil rights for all.'
Oh, how beautiful it all seemed. Racism and race-baiting strategies finally purged from the Republican Party. Forever! No more nasty segregationist romanticizing. No more code words. No more 'Southern strategy' to appeal to racists.
Never mind that Bush himself spoke less than three years ago at the notorious Bob Jones University. Never mind that Bush himself wouldn't publicly say that Lott should step down. Like a Mafia hit, the White House had Karl Rove get rid of Lott behind the scenes. Nice and tidy. Lott was iced—though is still in the Senate and was even given a committee chair—and racism was finally over in America. Or so they'd have us believe.
Now here we are, just a month later, and the Bushies are stoking the race issue in a much more skillful way than bumbling Lott could have ever mastered. First they brought back for renomination to the federal bench Lott's buddy, Charles Pickering—the Mississippi judge who is soft on cross-burners and whom the then-Democratically controlled Senate rejected last year.
According to some of the published reports quoting White House 'insiders,' it doesn't seem the White House even likes the guy all that much. But he serves two purposes: 1) He'll force the Democrats to shoot their wad on him, perhaps in a contentious filibuster, allowing the White House to push through the right-wing, anti-choice, anti-gay judges they really want. 2) He'll allow the administration to send a message to those whites who supported Lott and who might have been angered by the debacle over his remarks, letting them know they're not forgotten—yes, the Southern strategy, alive and well. Whether Pickering makes it through or goes down in flames, it's a win-win for the Bushies in their attempts to play to their conservative base.
In a similar vein, Bush also went public supporting the white students who sued the University of Michigan over its affirmative-action policy, a case the Supreme Court is currently considering. Criticizing a form of affirmative action doesn't amount to race-baiting. But using code words—the essence of the Southern strategy—to appeal to disgruntled whites most definitely is race-baiting, as is distorting an issue to exploit animosity against minorities for political gain.
That's what Bush did in his speech—given on Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, no less—attacking the university's policy and stating that the White House would be submitting a brief to the Supreme Court on behalf of the white students. Bush went on and on about how unjust racial 'quotas' are, using a word that Republicans have used since the Reagan era to scare whites by stirring up fear and racism. But in fact, the university doesn't have a quota system (though the Bushies want us to believe its policy amounts to the same thing). In its admissions process, the university gives points to members of minorities, just as it gives points to applicants based on academic achievement and talent, and to children of alumni. But it does not have any quota to meet with regard to any category of people.
Bush didn't have to file a brief in the case at all. We're to believe that he just couldn't stay out of it because he feels so passionately about the issue. But if he really thought the policy was so terrible that he just had to speak up, why didn't he argue against it based on what the policy actually is? Instead, he obscured the issue by floating the 'quota' word, distorting the facts for probably only one purpose: political gain among his base, as well as among the electorate in general. It was the same way that Republicans appealed to white racism back in 1993, when they attacked Bill Clinton's Department of Justice Civil Rights Division appointee Lani Guinier as a 'quota queen,' though she was in fact against quotas. With the Lott meltdown behind them—and much of the media having forgotten about it—the Republicans are back to their code words, business as usual.
Give Us Leona!
The New York Times surely wouldn't deny that part of its role is to entertain us. Certainly the 'Escapes' section is not something we need to read in order to be informed about vital events. And the Times' gossip column, 'Boldface Names,' gives us such burning news-that's-fit-to-print as Ben Affleck's buying fiancee Jennifer Lopez's mother a $150,000 Mercedes.
So why, then, can't the Times stoop to covering on a daily basis the most entertaining legal affair to hit New York since the SUV terrorist Lizzie Grubman was sent to the clink? Yes, I'm talking about the Leona Helmsley lawsuit trial. The hotel empress is being sued for $40 million by her Nordic-looking, shaved-head former general manager of the Park Lane Hotel, Charles Bell. Bell claims he was fired because he is gay. In her defense, Helmsley says it was more about his penchant for bringing his hot leather-and-s&m pals into the hotel.
So far, the Times only covered the trial on opening day, in a short, dry report. Couldn't the editors at least send one of the 'Metro Matters' columnists to sit in on the trial? If need be, they could of course couch it all as being about something as high-minded as alleged discrimination.
Ah, this is when you thank God for New York's tabloids. Daily News headline, 'Flipped Over Gay Party at Her Hotel: Leona's Leather Nightmare,' was only outdone the following day by the New York Post headline: 'Drag Queen: 'She told me she once caught him trying on her underwear.''
I'm not about to decide who's right and who's wrong in any of this—Leona has a gaggle of supportive gay employees who are testifying in her defense—but when she reportedly said that she walked into an elevator and was frightened by a man in leather with a shaved head, well, it strained credulity. How many years has she lived in New York?