Just when the recent Trent Lott brouhaha has mercifully died down, another controversy involving Lott is already brewing. In the upcoming months we will see that Lott’s banishment from Senate leadership hardly spells the banishment of his legacy of racial insensitivity. Another chapter in Lott’s dismal performance in the politics of race will be written when the nomination of uber-conservative judge Charles Pickering comes to a head, with the Bush Administration and Judiciary Committee firebrand Charles Schumer already sparring about a potential Democratic filibuster. Pickering has been a consistent foe of civil rights legislation in Mississippi, and for many blacks is unpropitiously associated with the stifling of black judicial picks from Mississippi by the GOP during the Clinton presidency. Since Lott has been the head cheerleader for fellow Mississippian Pickering from the moment Bush took office, the nomination is already stirring Lott’s political ashes.
Pickering is a key test for Lott, for Bush, and for the future of the judiciary. Not to mention a spate of judicial nominees already waiting for Senate confirmation, the expected retirement of two or three Supreme Court justices during Bush’s presidential tenure has jacked up the stakes for the nascent struggle for ideological control of the judiciary.
It is often said that Robert Bork would be on the Supreme Court if it were not for Roe v. Wade, which for liberals could be seen as frightening prediction for the future: a change in the tenuous balance of power on the Court could lead to a weakening in Roe v. Wade, which in turn could open the door to judges like Bork, whose major disqualification was a threat to rights, such as women’s choice, which soon may no longer exist.
Pickering — who was canned last March by the Judiciary Committee when Democrats threatened to filibuster, and defiantly renominated by Bush after the Republican triumph in November — is important for a couple of reasons. His ability to survive the confirmation process may be a foreshadowing of Bush’s ability to shepherd a flock of conservative judges through the gauntlet of the closely divided Senate. But Pickering could alternatively become the same red herring that the fallen Lott has proven to be, a sacrificial lamb whose political slaughter quietly advances the pragmatic interests of the party by making room for a new image, without a new message.
If Lott’s downfall kills Pickering, as many experts think it will, we will be in for a sobering political education: how a party treats its disgraced speaks volumes about the wilting of principles in the swelter of partisan design. Pickering’s reputation, like Lott’s, will suffer from sour grapes, demonstrating that political parties serve themselves even at the expense of the faithful, and by opportunism rather than loyalty. Even with Pickering gone, Bush is certain to find a replacement with a less controversial pedigree than the Lott-groomed Pickering, one who is no less conservative but much more difficult to oppose.
But for the moment, at a time when racial politics have been inflamed by Lott’s bigotry or just stupidity, and when Bush’s stance on the University of Michigan’s admissions policy is widely regarded as a middle finger to black America, Pickering can only serve as a second middle finger. How many middle fingers does Bush have left?
For many minorities the fact that Bush’s point-man in the fight to push Pickering through the Senate is Trent Lott seems to have a bitter logic. They deserve one another: the man who repeatedly eulogizes Thurmond’s 1948 Dixiecrat campaign and the man who fought to reduce sentences for cross-burners and in 1959 wrote in the Mississippi Law Review about how to strengthen anti-miscegenation laws.
In other words, Pickering needs Lott, but Lott also needs Pickering.
Even if the GOP wishes Lott would don a muzzle, his deal-making skills and political experience remain invaluable assets. So ironically, Lott’s recent stumble might actually make him a more effective behind-the-scenes player in the war for control of the federal courts. That war, whose crowning battle may spell life or death for abortion rights and civil rights law, will demonstrate that Lott’s career is far from over, his downfall anything but an unintended GOP disaster, and nothing is ever what it seems in Washington.
Aaron Goode is a junior in Calhoun College.