If contrition is good for the soul, as criticis of former President Bill Clinton used to say at the hieight of his foibles over Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones, then Senate President Trent Lott must be approaching sainthood.

Lott, who was branded as a racist for his comments at Sen. Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party celebration, has apologized over and over during the past two weeks in an apparent attempt to hang on to his position as leader of the U.S. Senate. The oddsmakers are saying that if Trott hangs onto his job it will be the greatest political Houdini act of modern times. Some of Lott's closest allies and even President George Bush are distancing themselves from the embattled senator.

What did Lott say to trigger the avalanche of criticism. Here are his exact words.

"I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems for all these years, either."

On the face of it these words seem like a benign compliment to the 100-year-old senator from South Carolina, whose longevity in the Senate is a feat that will not be matched for many years to come.

Lott's problem is his old buddy ran for President on the segregationist ticket. So placed in that context one could argue that Lott harbors racist views, at least that is the view espoused by to his lily white critics. Lott later said that when he made those comments he was thinking of Thurmond as a man who stood for a strong national defense, economic development, balanced budgets and opportunity. Unfortunately for Lott that explanation did not wash with his critics, who say those words are only an excuse, an afterthought, to save his political bacon.

It seems to us this is politics as usual in Washington, D.C., that Democrats, after a humiliating defeat at the polls in November, received an early Christmas present in the form of Lotte's gaffe and and are going to exploit it to the nth degree. We suspect that most Americans can see the situation for what it is, a firestorm that has more to do with political posturing that it does with outrage over Lott's views about black people. R.S.

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