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Minority Report on the Incoming Majority Leader

December 17, 2002|HOWARD ROSENBERG

Besieged Senate Republican leader Trent Lott on cable's Black Entertainment Television?

He was forthright. He was incisive. He was earnest. He was strong. He was bold. He was commanding. He was believable. He was intelligent. He was perceptive. He was shrewd. In other words, he was everything viewers could have asked for in an eagerly anticipated televised one-on-one with national political implications.

But enough about interviewer Ed Gordon.

And Lott? Surely he'd had better nights.

He was again apologetic Monday night, hoping to atone for saying at a 100th birthday party for Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) that the nation would have been better off had Thurmond been elected president in 1948 when running as a segregationist.

Although his apologies were familiar, Lott did break ground. It was likely the first time in his Senate career that his television lead-in was a program titled "Best Comedy in Rap Videos," an exotic juxtaposition for a senator accused of still being racist after all these years.

In fact, there was something surreal about the entire half-hour interview, which Lott sought in hopes of impressing BET's predominantly black audience, and perhaps those of his fellow Republicans who now believe he's too stained politically to continue functioning as their leader in the Senate.

Lott was following a long tradition of politicians seeking redemption -- and approval -- through television, from Richard Nixon's famed Checkers speech to Bill and Hillary Clinton on "60 Minutes" to Rep. Gary A. Condit self-destructing with Connie Chung on ABC.

How politicians do on these occasions usually depends on the quality of the interviewer, whether that person is aggressive or passive, well-informed or a dumb palooka wildly throwing out questions.

Gordon was no palooka. He never is. He had earlier gotten famous on BET by conducting tough interviews with the likes of O.J. Simpson and Louis Farrakhan before moving on to NBC. Now he's back at BET.

On Monday, he was Lott's worst nightmare, offering a primer for other TV interviewers.

Gordon was polite but firm. Without being a bully, he held Lott's tongue to the fire, pressing him on "your past" and not allowing the senator to dodge, finesse or answer questions that weren't asked.

Gordon ticked off instances of Lott's behavior that his critics now point to as allegedly racist, and challenged him to explain them. When Lott tried to separate his actions on a personal level from his legislative record, Gordon would have none of it.

As for the newer, more enlightened Lott's hat-in-hand mea culpa about his opposition to a national holiday for the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other issues, a stony Gordon wanted to know exactly when his epiphany had occurred.

Lott's non-answer was his answer. Gordon thanked him for coming on, which was about like a wildebeest being thanked by a lion for dropping by.

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