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CNN SUNDAY MORNING

Interview With Michael Weisskopf

Aired December 15, 2002 - 07:04   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

CHARLES MOLINEAUX, CNN ANCHOR: "Time" magazine reports Senator Lott has a history when it comes to race related issues. Perhaps a secret, or at least, a very quiet history. It's cover story is called, "White-Washing History." Joining me to talk about it now is Michael Weisskopf, "Time" investigative correspondent.
Thanks for being with us. You talk Trent Lott a wind talker for racists, using code words to appeal to segregationists, perhaps unrepentant old Southerners. Explain.

MICHAEL WEISSKOPF, "TIME" MAGAZINE: The remarks at the Thurmond's event are typical for Lott in that case he just talked about how Thurmond's victory in '48 may have avoided problems the country had. That's code language for anyone who was around in '48 or can remember that period and shares a view that a segregationist society might be one more problem free than this one.

The difference here though, Charles, is that Lott has historically made those comments to Southern audiences without the kind of spotlight that he faced in the Thurmond case.

MOLINEAUX: Now, one comment that is very similar, of course, has been brought up, is when he said something almost verbatim what he said, back in 1980. Again, referencing Senator Thurmond, although it seem to be much more at the time couched in terms of being a Reagan Republican, being a conservative, supporting conservative values. How do you differentiate between the segregationist agenda and ordinary conservative ideology?

WEISSKOPF: Here he falls back continuously sort on the sort of states rights philosophy, which also Thurmond made a point of. He ran for the states rights party, known as the Dixiecrats, back in '48. Of course, states rights means autonomy for the states to determine how they should run their racial affairs and that's where he crosses the line, at least, in the minds of people who are sensitive to race issues.

MOLINEAUX: It has been said that one of Lott's problems is that he is actually so young, that he doesn't have a racist, segregationist legislative record that he has had to repudiate, or for that matter learn from, as say Strom Thurmond did. Does that fit into his story?

WEISSKOPF: Lott is not too young. He really is on the watershed between the Jim Crowe era in the South and contemporary America. And he's talked about that. How he was born and raised in a culture that was segregationist and he admits that he was a segregationist, but that he has grown.

The question there is to what extent Trent Lott, as one of the people we spoke to last week put it, has left Mississippi. In other words, there remains in Mississippi a still kind of nostalgia for that earlier period. That's not to say that Mississippians are segregationist or racists by any means. But there is a longing for those old days.

MOLINEAUX: Well, but that raises -- but does he have to leave Mississippi? In your article you point out that Mississippi has come a long way and that Lott actually applauded that in his apology press conference. Is that not to be taken seriously? Does he not come off as having learned a lesson?

WEISSKOPF: This, of course, is in the eye of the beholder, but those who feel that he stopped short think that he should show a little bit more of an emotional component there. He was cool and kind of airbrushed in his presentation, coherently presenting his point of view.

I think the problem with Republicans, up to now -- and they of course are the real audience here for Trent Lott, they'll determine his fate -- is the kind of specter of this guy being by the president's side signing bills; bringing him into the House of Representatives for his State of the Union speech; being on the floor of the Senate as the face of the Republican Party. He'll continue, as your reporter said a minute ago, to echo this kind of moment that makes him kind of a poster boy for all the segregationists views that we thought that we had passed by.

MOLINEAUX: OK, thank you very much. Michael Weisskopf, "Time" investigative correspondent.

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