WASHINGTON -- Incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) apologized Monday for a statement he made last week at a birthday party for a fellow Republican that critics said reopened some of the country's old racial wounds.
Speaking at a celebration for centenarian Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina on Thursday, Lott noted that Mississippi had backed Thurmond's segregationist Dixiecrat presidential candidacy in 1948. It was one of four states, all in the South, that Thurmond won that year.
"We're proud of it," Lott then added. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
That comment, broadcast on C-SPAN, drew immediate condemnation from civil rights leaders and some Democrats and was still rippling through Washington over the weekend.
Former Vice President Al Gore called on Lott to apologize, describing the statement as "racist."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson went a step further, calling on Lott to step down as leader.
For Lott, the reaction to his comments was no small matter. In 1998 and 1999 he was forced to answer questions about his contacts with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that fomented controversial rhetoric on race and immigration. Leaders of the group denied that they were racist but acknowledged taking provocative stands.
At the time, Lott repudiated "white supremacist or racist views by this or any other organization."
On Monday, the senator issued two brief statements in which he sought to quell the new criticism.
In the first, he said his remarks should be considered in context of "a lighthearted celebration of the 100th birthday of legendary Sen. Strom Thurmond" and should not be construed as an endorsement of segregation.
Hours later, he went a step further.
"A poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past," Lott said through press secretary Ron Bonjean. "Nothing could be further from the truth, and I apologize for my statement to anyone who was offended by it."
When asked about the incident at a news conference Monday, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota said he accepted an explanation that Lott had given him in a phone call earlier in the day.
"There are a lot of times when he and I go to the microphone and would like to say things we meant to say differently," Daschle said, "and I'm sure this was one of those cases for him, as well."