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Memories of Lott and Jackson: A teaching moment

Democrats and most African-American leaders, including President Barack Obama, quickly accepted Reid’s (D-Nev.) apology for his statement to the authors of the book Game Change implying then-Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) was more electable because he was a “light-skinned Negro” without a “dialect.” They did so because Reid has a longstanding record of supporting civil rights, affirmative action and social spending programs particularly aimed at assisting the poor and people of color.

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Some have contrasted the ready acceptance of Reid’s apology with the forced resignation of Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.) as GOP leader on Dec. 21, 2002. On Dec. 5, Lott had toasted the now-deceased Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond (S.C.) at his 100th birthday party, saying that had Thurmond won his pro-segregation 1948 presidential campaign, things would have been “better.” A few days later the toast was reported publicly, and Lott immediately apologized. But his apologies, repeated in various venues, including the TV cable station Black Entertainment Television, did not save him. When the Republican White House and some of his own colleagues in the Senate Republican Conference turned against him, Lott resigned his position as GOP Senate leader.

I have a special memory of this incident — one that might teach an important lesson to all of us at this particular moment in our history of heightened polarization in the Congress as well as the country.

About a week after the story broke, the late and great former Republican congressman and Housing and Urban Development secretary, Jack Kemp, a friend of mine for many years, called me and asked if I’d do him a favor and take a call from Lott to offer him some advice. I was then — as I am still — practicing law with a specialty in media and crisis management. I said of course.

Lott called a few minutes later. He asked me if I thought he should call the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had recently called on him to resign due to his Thurmond toast. Lott said he wished to express his apology for the toast personally to Jackson and asked me whether I thought he would take the call. I said he probably would and asked him what he wished to say.

He said, in words I can paraphrase to this day, that he was a child of a segregated community in Mississippi, and that he now realized that even a toast to a 100-year-old man that he certainly did not mean to be taken literally could be very hurtful to those who were the victims of discrimination and segregation. “I did not mean those words in my heart, Lanny,” I remember him saying.

I was moved not just by the sincerity of the senator’s apology but by Lott’s attempt to understand why he had made such a mistake, given his background. I advised him to call Jackson and to repeat just what he had said to me.

I called Jackson and was not surprised that he immediately said he would be happy to take the senator’s call. He asked me to come to his office to be there when the senator called.

Less than an hour later, I was sitting in the reverend’s office when Lott phoned. The reverend nodded several times, said, “I understand” several times. Then I saw his expression change. He looked up — clearly moved. He whispered, hand over the mouthpiece: “This is a man who has faced up to where his words came from.”

And then the Rev. Jackson said back into the phone, “Sen. Lott, I forgive you. Let us pray.” He quoted Scripture concerning the flaws in all human beings, and preached that true redemption comes from opening one’s heart and facing the truth. “Amen,” I found myself saying, hearing Lott’s voice over the phone saying the same word.

I hope this story is a reminder of what is possible when people with different backgrounds, ideologies and cultures reach out to each other and look for and find common ground, even if that means compromise to win incremental change and a bipartisan consensus.

I believe this is what most Americans want today more than ever. That is what Barack Obama believes in, what he ran on, what inspired so many people to vote for him.

If Trent Lott, a son of the Deep South, and the Rev. Jesse Jackson, a historic civil rights leader, were able to do that in that magic moment seven years ago, in a moment of prayer and humility, it can happen again today.

Davis, a Washington lawyer and former special counsel to President Clinton from 1996-98, served as a member of President George W. Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board in 2005-06. He is the author of Scandal: How ‘Gotcha’ Politics is Destroying America.