Back in 2002, Trent Lott said:
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 over all these years, either.
In response, a lot of people got upset, including Senator Gordon Smith, Republican of Oregon who, as Sam Stein reminds us said:
However they were intended, Senator Lott's words were offensive and I was deeply dismayed to hear of them. His statement goes against everything I and the people of Oregon believe in. I look forward to working with my Republican colleagues to arrive at a decision that is best for the U.S. Senate and the country.
Greg Sargent even has Smith getting more specific, saying after Lott stepped down from his leadership post that "Senator Lott's decision is best for the Senate and best for the country." Smith was right to be glad to see Lott go. Strom Thurmond's 1948 campaign was based on repugnant principles: "We stand for the segregation of the races and the racial integrity of each race."
Now, though, Smith regrets the whole thing:
I was half way around the world when an event befell Trent Lott that shook me deeply. I was celebrating my re-election and on vacation. I watched over international news as his words were misconstrued, words which we had heard him utter many times in his big warm-heartedness trying to make one of our colleagues, Strom Thurmond, feel good at 100 years old. We knew what he meant. But the wolfpack of the press circled around him, sensed blood in the water, and the exigencies of politics caused a great injustice.
No doubt that was Lott trying to make Thurmond "feel good" rather than intending to seriously consider the historical counterfactual in which Thurmond's white supremacist ticket won in 1948. That said, what he was more specifically trying to do was make Thurmond feel good about his role as a leading white supremacist. Robert Byrd, for example, used to be in the Klan and has now changed his ways. One might try to make him feel good by saying nice about him. Nothing wrong with that. But you wouldn't specifically praise him as a Klan leader.
Unless, that is, you were a racist.
Meanwhile, with regard to both Lott and now to Smith, it should be said that indifference to racism is, when taken to these levels, itself a form of racism. Nobody who took the interests or attitudes of black people seriously would be saying this stuff.