Victory of substance over style

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 December, 2002, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 December, 2002, 12:00am

The cut and thrust of politics surrounding the US Congress may sometimes appear far removed from this region. Yet, as the world's most important legislative body, it unfortunately cannot be ignored. At various times, both the Senate and the House of Representatives can wield significant influence in this part of the world, whether it involves US trade with China, relations with Taiwan or export controls in Hong Kong.

Given that importance, the resignation of the Senate's Republican Majority Leader, Trent Lott, is to be welcomed.

The recent remarks by the Mississippi senator voicing apparent support for the former racist 'Dixiecrat' politics of his centurian colleague Strom Thurmond were quite simply alarming. Whatever Mr Lott's explanation - and he has offered at least five versions - they were not fit for a leader of high public office.

Set against the efforts of his own party to uphold the finest inclusive moral traditions of Abraham Lincoln - President George W. Bush's cabinet is the most diverse in US history - Mr Lott's comments are even more stark.

The southern apartheid of half a century ago is an unremovable stain on US political history. If it rarely surfaces openly, it is nevertheless a factor that sits stubbornly in the background - as the debate swirling about Mr Lott shows. It was not the first time he or other politicians have made similar statements.

If Mr Bush did not openly push Mr Lott to step down, he did little to help him, either. He deserves credit for standing firm and throwing no lifelines to Mr Lott, as awkward as his sudden departure may prove.

It was a downfall no one saw coming. Just as he never seemed to have a single hair out of place, Mr Lott is an old-style southern politician who never seemed to put a foot wrong.

A deal-maker and backroom smoothie, Mr Lott was a master political operative, more known for his ability to wield and keep power than any firm ideology or policy. A review of defence contracts snared by Mississippi firms only confirms his image in the mould of a classic patronage politician.

His famed gift of the gab seemed to trip him up this time, however. The more he apologised, the more he seemed like an operator who would say anything to stay in power.

Some good may come out of the affair, forcing all political shades to ever more firmly embrace diversity. It may also be a victory for substance over style. This, after all, was one deal that Mr Lott could not fix.