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Senate Majority Leader Apologizes for Racist Comments - 2002-12-12

A key U.S. lawmaker has apologized for comments he made suggesting the United States would have been better off if segregationist Presidential candidate Strom Thurman been elected to the White House in 1948. Remarks made by incoming Majority Leader Trent Lott last week touched off a political firestorm.

The controversy began last week at a Capitol Hill party in honor of the 100th birthday of retiring Senator Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Republican.

Senator Lott, a Mississippi Republican, offered the following comments as part of his tribute to Senator Thurmond.

"I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We are proud of him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we would not have had all these problems over all these years, either," Senator Lott said.

At the time, Mr. Thurmond, then governor of South Carolina, ran for president on the Dixiecrat ticket, with a goal of preserving racial segregation.

Democrats have seized on Mr. Lott's comments as a political issue.

Former Vice President Al Gore, who may run for President in 2004 after his unsuccessful bid as the Democratic Presidential nominee in 2000, called the remarks 'racist,' and said the senate should censure the Republican leader. African-American leaders demanded Mr. Lott give up his leadership position.

The firestorm intensified Wednesday when news accounts reported that Mr. Lott made nearly identical comments at a rally in Mississippi with Mr. Thurmond more than two decades ago.

Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle issued a written statement saying: "it is profoundly disturbing that Senator Lott's statement last week was not an isolated incident."

In an effort to put the matter to rest, Mr. Lott took to the airwaves, offering an apology in an interview that was broadcast nationwide by several networks, including ABC.

"I am sorry for my words. They were poorly chosen and insensitive," he said. I regret the way it has been interpreted."

Republicans are coming to Mr. Lott's defense. Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania issued a written statement saying Mr. Lott's comment last week was 'an inadvertent slip', and that the Republican leader's apology should end the discussion.