Is Conrad Burns racist enough for Montana? It depends on where you get your news. If you watch local television stations KPAX or KECI, you just might think that the nation’s loudest racist senator is Trent Lott, the recently disgraced (and now resigned) Republican majority leader whose racial smearing has been covered extensively by local, national and international newscasters.
But if get your news from such liberal rags as, say, the Washington Post you might realize that racist senators are alive and well up here near the Canadian border.
“[Senator Burns] said he would only talk to us if we didn’t bring up his racist past,” said KPAX reporter Christine Schuldheisz during the senator’s preaching-to-the-choir gathering of the Bitterroot North Valley Pachyderm Club in Stevensville last Friday.
KECI, meanwhile, simply aired footage of a Burns interview, and failed to question Montana’s Republican senator about his history of bashing persons of color. Instead, they chose to question him on the controversy surrounding Lott’s well-publicized good ol’ boy praising of Strom Thurmond. “I’m really happy that Trent is staying in the Senate,” Burns told KECI. “Because he still has a lot to offer.”
Burns’ racist record is well documented; he once told the Bozeman Daily Chronicle editorial board just how “difficult” it was to live in Washington, D.C. “with all those niggers.” Later he publicly referred to Arab-Americans as “ragheads,” and the Washington Post slammed the senator for a comment he made about attending a slave auction following a floor vote on civil rights legislation in the Senate.
Of course, it is important to note that Burns has felt compelled to acknowledge—and apologize for—these and other racial slurs. Duly noted, but the record shows a pattern of disrespect to non-white constituents.
Like three years ago, when Senator Burns pushed a proposal that would have forfeited control of the Flathead Indian Reservation’s irrigation rights from the Bureau of Indian Affairs to a party of primarily non-Indian irrigators. Immediate and intense outrage from an across-the-board spectrum of voters forced him to table that measure, but not before the damage was done with Montana’s Native American population.
But lest you suspect that Montana’s longest serving senator is the only national figure suffering from foot-deep-in-the-mouth disease, never fear. For instance, the same day Burns told the Independent that his comments were “inappropriate then and they’re inappropriate now,” the Associated Press reported that U.S. Rep. Cass Ballenger (R., S.C.) felt compelled to apply a fresh coat of white paint to his yard’s black “lawn jockey” as a sop to locals outraged by the symbolism. The similarly articulate Ballenger also told the Charlotte Observer that Georgia Democrat Cynthia McKinney had angered him so much that “I must admit I had segregationist feelings,” adding, “I mean, she was such a bitch.”
But back in Montana for the holidays, Burns was feeling comfortable enough with his apologies, and encouraged his constituents to let bygones be bygones. In fact, he was so comfortable he thought he’d reach deep down and tell a little joke about the Lott controversy.
Referring to Lott as “a good and honorable man,” Burns said that he supported Lott’s resignation from the Republic leadership, and was interested in allowing the Senate to move forward with the appointment of Tennessee heart surgeon-turned-Senator Bill Frist. “I told him [Frist] that if I ever wanted a new heart, I always wanted Trent’s,” Burns told the Bitterroot Republicans, speaking like a man who would know. “It’s never been used.”