July 1, 2016

What’s the difference between Donald Trump and Earl Butz?

Short answer: Trump’s comments about Mexicans and a Mexican-American judge and “my African American” are worse than Butz’s joke — or, for that matter, Trent Lott’s endorsement.

Butz’s infamous 1976 racist joke was far less troubling. Then there is Lott’s retro-endorsement in December of 2002, of the 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign of segregationist Strom Thurmond, the retiring 100-year-old U.S. senator from South Carolina.

What’s another key difference between Butz, secretary of agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford, and Lott, at the time the incoming Senate majority leader, and Donald Trump?

Butz lost his job. Lott hung on, but in a dramatically diminished capacity until his retirement five years later.

Lott, a Mississippi Republican, offered a tribute to Thurmond, whose third-party candidacy in 1948 was based on opposition to “social intermingling of the races.”

Flanked by Thurmond with C-SPAN cameras rolling, 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.”

Lott said he used a poor choice of words. But some words, like fired bullets or clenched fists that have found their targets, can’t be taken back with the hurt explained away.

Racism is the reason Strom Thurmond, now a Republican, bolted the Democratic Party and ran as a Dixiecrat against President Harry Truman and the GOP’s Thomas Dewey.

In 1976, Butz, the colorful agriculture secretary resigned after delivering the following joke: “I’ll tell you what the coloreds want. It’s three things. First, a tight (obscenity); second, loose shoes; and third a warm place to (vulgarity).”

Butz’s clearly indefensible joke about African Americans is the careless stuff of backrooms and barrooms.

His is the racism of the thoughtless. It’s tasteless. Trump’s suggestion, meanwhile, that a Latino judge can’t preside over a case in which the New York real-estate magnate is involved because of Trumps calls for walls and deportations, is far more insidious as it is the stuff of systematic racism.

Butz paid a high price for that stupid 1976 joke.

It turned him into a laughingstock, and became the only moment out of a long public career with which he is still widely associated.

Not too long ago, The Houston Chronicle referenced Butz’s remark in a story about some insensitive comments made by a Rice University coach.

In 1990, Butz spoke in Carroll. I covered the event and asked him about the joke and what it was like to be remembered almost exclusively for it. I was young and unforgiving and delighted in raising this episode during the interview — when my readers would have been better served by more probing on current ag matters.

Butz, to his credit, gamely indulged, even though he had long since left officialdom.

“It was in the heat of a campaign,” Butz told me that windy June day in Carroll. “The media will do anything to find a kink in the armor.”

Once it was revealed, that “kink” cost Butz his job as the top man at the ag department and any claim to respectability in respectable circles.

Forty years later, Donald Trump appears to have weathered what Butz could not — and then some.

If that’s progress, then maybe Trump is right to long for the past.