Democrats and Republicans alike are finding plenty of reasons to criticize the comment Senate majority leader Trent Lott made at Sen. Strom Thurmond's recent birthday party. But maybe not the right reasons.
While Mr. Lott probably is a reformed ex-segregationist, he showed extraordinary insensitivity not befitting a Senate leader. An unfortunate off-the-cuff remark is one thing; when it's nearly a verbatim repeat of a sentiment expressed in 1980, it's more difficult to believe such sentiments aren't more permanently held on the sleeve.
Mr. Lott himself only recently took to the airwaves to apologize. The fact that he plans to further explain his views this week is another sign he thinks the matter could still just blow over.
Also making matters more political than heartfelt was word that Lott threatened to leave the Senate if he lost the Republican leadership post, a move that once again would split the Senate as much as race has split the country.
Democrats, still lacking a real leader and a message, look as if they've picked up on the remark and decided to run with it simply to fill a substantive political void.
Republicans were too slow in chastising Lott, and that makes them look as if they were just embarrassed and unsure of how to handle things from a purely political perspective.
The president's own tardy admonition of Lott's comment, and word now that the White House will look the other way if other Republican senators challenge Lott's leadership, also shows a lack of leadership in vigorously addressing any hint of racism, especially at such a high level.
Seeking political gain out of this affair should not be the motive of public figures questioning Lott's leadership.
His comments are of high concern because they reflect a continuing need in a multiracial United States to constantly and actively confront attitudes of racial prejudice.
Indeed, a fellow longtime senator, Robert Byrd (D) of West Virginia, just a year ago made a racially insensitive remark, and still has not taken the Senate floor to apologize. Older politicians who come out of another era of racial sensitivities must wake up to their responsibility to be at the forefront of racial healing.
Whether Lott goes or stays in the Senate, this affair can serve as a mirror for all Americans to look deep within their daily thoughts, and make sure there are no lingering aspects of racism.