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Bush Rebukes Senate Leader Over Racially Sensitive Remarks - 2002-12-12

President Bush has sharply rebuked the top Republican in the U.S. Senate for remarks seen by some as support for segregationist policies of the past. But Mr. Bush stopped short of suggesting that Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi should resign his leadership post.

The controversial comments from Trent Lott came at a 100th birthday party for retiring Republican Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

In 1948, Mr. Thurmond ran for president on a segregationist platform. Senator Lott recalled those days and in so doing touched off a political firestorm.

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

There was an immediate outcry. Some Democrats called on Senator Lott to resign his leadership post, a view echoed by the most prominent civil rights organization in the country, the NAACP.

The Mississippi senator later apologized. President Bush, breaking his own silence on the matter, said Trent Lott was right to do so. "Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country," he said.

Seldom does a president of the United States take such issue with the comments of a leading member of his own party. But Mr. Bush, who has been trying to bring more African-Americans and Hispanics into the Republican ranks, made his position very clear.

"Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive and it is wrong," he said.

The president brought up the issue during a speech in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania that focused on his plan to provide federal tax funds to religious organizations that use them to run programs for the poor and needy. His audience included a large number of African-Americans who work in depressed urban neighborhoods. They roared their approval when Mr. Bush made his comments about race.

"The founding ideals of our nation, and, in fact, the founding ideals of the political party I represent, was and remains today the equal dignity and equal rights of every American," he said.

White House officials say while the president disapproves of Senator Lott's remarks he will not join the calls for his resignation. They indicate that in time, the controversy should fade.

But in the president's audience was one prominent politician who said members of minority groups are not likely to forget Trent Lott's remarks. Philadelphia Mayor John Street, a Democrat, said the senators comments were more than regrettable and a simple apology may not be enough.