(CNSNews.com) - In his first media interview since making controversial remarks about Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential run, incoming Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) Wednesday denied that he favors racial segregation.
Lott told Fox News Channel his remarks last week at Thurmond's 100th birthday party on Capitol Hill were a "mistake of the head and not of the heart."
Lott was talking about Thurmond's candidacy as the 1948 presidential nominee of the States' Rights Democrats, known then as the "Dixiecrats." Although he would later distance himself from that 1948 campaign, Thurmond at the time favored racial segregation.
Last week, Lott said Mississippians were proud to have voted for Thurmond, "and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
Following a storm of criticism, Lott explained Wednesday that he was not intending to endorse Thurmond's segregationist policies.
"Obviously, I'm sorry for my words. They were poorly chosen and insensitive," he said.
Lott said his remarks were meant to praise Thurmond for his stance in favor of a strong national defense, balanced budget and personal opportunity, but admitted his words didn't come out that way.
"The words were terrible and I regret that," he said. "I can almost say that this was a mistake of the head and not of the heart. I don't accept those [segregationist] policies of the past at all."
Lott also praised Thurmond for repudiating in later years those segregationist policies that he had earlier advocated. "He was one of the leaders in voting for additional funding for historical black colleges and universities, which I have also done and will continue to do," Lott said.
Earlier Wednesday, Senate Democratic Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) called on President Bush to personally renounce Lott for the remarks.
"The president should make clear that there is no place for any such sentiments in the Republican Party or anywhere else in America today," Daschle said.
He also seized on a New York Times report, which stated that during a 1980 campaign rally in Mississippi for Ronald Reagan, Lott, then a U.S. House member, uttered remarks nearly identical to the ones he made last week.
According to the newspaper, after Thurmond spoke at that 1980 rally, Lott told the crowd, "You know, if we had elected this man 30 years ago, we wouldn't be in the mess we are today."
"It is profoundly disturbing that Senator Lott's statement last week was not an isolated incident. Such statements were unacceptable in 1980, and they are no less today," Daschle said.
On Monday, he had defended Lott against racism charges.
"There are a lot of times when he and I go to the mike and would like to say things we meant to say differently, and I'm sure this is one of those cases for him as well," Daschle said.
After that statement, several black Congressional Democrats scolded Daschle for defending his Republican colleague.
"I think that Mr. Daschle moved too quickly to explain Mr. Lott," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). "It is not enough to simply defend or to explain these kind of statements and then at election time talk about why black Americans should turn out in large numbers."
Lott said Wednesday during the Fox News interview that he had spoken and apologized to several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including its outgoing chairperson, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas).
Johnson said Wednesday she talked with Lott and he did apologize. However, she had remaining doubts about how the apology would be accepted by the rest of the members of the Black Caucus.
The only black Republican in Congress, Rep. J.C. Watts of Oklahoma, defended Lott's remarks. "Senator Lott was trying to be spontaneous," he said. "He went too far."
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said President Bush backed Lott's apology and said Lott had sufficiently addressed the issue.
"He has apologized for his statement, and the president understands that that is the final word from Senator Lott in terms of the fact that he said something and has apologized for it," Fleischer said.
He said Bush is comfortable with Lott as the leader of Senate Republicans. "The president has confidence in him as the Republican leader, unquestionably," Fleischer said.
Lott said Wednesday he believes the American public understands that people in politics make mistakes and make bad statements.
"I think that people themselves recognize how tough the job is and that you should be focused on the future and not on the past," he concluded.
However, Ralph Neas, president of People for the American Way, said Lott is a "national embarrassment" and should resign his leadership post.
"If Lott doesn't resign his leadership post, senators should elect a new majority leader. This is the time for moral leadership and courage from the president and Republican and Democratic senators," said Neas.
E-mail a news tip to Jim Burns.
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