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A year-end rumination: It's getting real cold in Washington

Ahhh, Washington in December! The city is decked out for the holidays, and the weather is frightful. Especially for Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, who must be gaining a new appreciation for Harry Truman's aphorism, "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog."

This is a tough place. When a guy gets in hot water, he quite often finds himself wondering where all his friends went. Senator Lott is now having a tough time finding friends. This Washington death dance displays grandly the hypocrisy of this place. Conservative Senators such as Don Nickles and Mitch McConnell are "tsk-tsking" Senator Lott as though their own records on civil rights were not dismal. These Senators' bare attempts to move up the ladder at Lott's expense bear witness to all that friendship in Washington is built on convenience, not principle.

And what of President Bush? His stern criticism of Senator Lott was the right thing, of course. But I wish I felt more certain that his abhorrence of Lott's remarks was genuine and not just for political show. After all, this is the same George Bush who openly courted racist voters in South Carolina by appearing at Bob Jones University during the 2000 campaign. Why? Because Senator John McCain had just kicked his butt in a couple of primaries, and Mr. Bush needed to win big in South Carolina. Watching Bush criticize Lott reminds me a bit of the relationship between the pot and the kettle.

The whole thing exemplifies the Republican dilemma on race. It's obvious that racist voters are a key part of the activist Republican base. They have been ever since Lyndon Johnson wrote off southern Democrats and forced the passage of the watershed civil rights legislation of the 1960s. Richard Nixon in his 1968 campaign cynically took advantage of southern racism with his opposition to forced busing of students to desegregate southern schools.

The Republicans still need these racist voters, even though their numbers are dwindling, and candidates in southern Republican primaries really need them. That's why George Bush went to Bob Jones University. Senator Lott has become an embarrassing symbol of the Republican dependence on racist votes, so the party elders have decided that he must go.

Senator Lott is not the only one whose racism is showing. Someone named Delphine Red Shirt, who does something at Yale University, recently wrote to Connecticut publications to denounce Connecticut Indians as not being Indians at all. The unkindest cut!

As I understand her position, Connecticut Indians are not Indians because they do not look like her, do not act like her, do not speak like her, do not ? well, you get the picture. (They also do not have cool names like hers, but she forgot to mention that.) Expect to see Ms. Red Shirt trotted out every time some white people want to say something ugly about Indian people but dare not do so because they would be labeled as racists.

I think we brown-skinned, black-haired Indians had better be careful about what we say about New England Indians. There are fewer and fewer full-bloods among us. If being Indian means looking a certain way, then most tribes are only two or three generations from extermination.

The New England Indians did what they had to do to survive. They intermarried and accommodated the overwhelming presence of non-Indians. Yet they persevered and maintained themselves, some of them, as distinct social, political and cultural communities. Are they the same as the Indians who greeted the English and Dutch settlers in the 17th century? Of course not. But then few if any tribes closely resemble their pre-Columbian ancestors.

On to those wacky Democrats! Vice-President Gore announced that he will not run for President in 2004. I'm glad. I like Mr. Gore. I think he is a good man and would make a very good president. But I don't think he could win, and I don't wish to see someone I like put through the wringer of a presidential campaign.

It looks to me like he's beginning to enjoy his life. He's clearly at his best when he's with his wife, Tipper, and I loved their performance on Saturday Night Live. I, for one, would like to see more of the Al Gore who has been intelligently criticizing President Bush's war and economic policies. In our weird, media-driven politics, a candidate for President simply cannot say what he really thinks. Now that he's out of the race, Mr. Gore's criticism becomes more, not less, persuasive.

Plus, his departure opens a wonderful opportunity for high comedy in the race for the Democratic nomination. Already the contenders are calling labor leaders, Hollywood stars and African-American organizers who would have supported Mr. Gore. Some of the contenders are really pretenders, of course, and Democrats like me don't yet know who to root for.

I can tell you who I'm not for, though. Senators Dodd and Lieberman, both of Connecticut, may be the Trent Lotts of the Democratic Party. Last fall they sponsored an effort to call a moratorium on new recognitions of Indian tribes. Obviously reacting to the anti-Indian sentiment growing in their home state, they sought political cover in their sponsorship of an anti-Indian amendment.

Mr. Dodd later appeared before the United South and Eastern Tribes to disclaim any anti-Indian sentiment. (Much the equivalent of Senator Lott appearing on Black Entertainment Television to apologize for praising segregationist Strom Thurmond.) Sorry, Senator. You are what you do.

Friends are people who stick with you when you need them most. They are the ones who'll put themselves at risk, politically or otherwise, when you need help. Senators Dodd and Lieberman turned on Connecticut Indians. This was the most stunning display of anti-Indian political cowardice I've seen lately. Indians deserved better than we got from Senators Dodd and Lieberman, and Americans deserve a better president than either of them would be.

Finally, farewell to Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb. His departure leaves a void that we will come to regret. We should worry that an accomplished and experienced politician whose heart was in the right place should come to such woe in so short a time. It demonstrates the weakness of the Assistant Secretary position and the meanness of Washington.

The Administration will have a very difficult time finding a credible replacement. Anybody smart enough to do the job might well be too smart to take it under the current circumstances. It was evident that Mr. McCaleb was carrying BIA reorganization proposals to the tribes that he did not necessarily believe in. It's also evident that the Department wants to trim back its responsibilities in the area of Indian trust. That's a tough message for an Assistant Secretary to sell to Indian country.

Through it all, Mr. McCaleb soldiered on, doing what an Assistant Secretary has to do to maintain his standing in the Administration and, therefore, maintain his ability to do good for Indians. That the burdens of office took their toll on him speaks not to his character or abilities, but to the weight of the burdens.

Happily, the holidays are upon us and Mr. McCaleb gets to enjoy them with his best friends. Harry Truman was wrong after all. If you need a friend in Washington, go home to your family.

Merry Christmas! Peace and good will to you and yours.

Kevin Gover, a columnist for Indian Country Today, is the former Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of the Interior.