Rebel Hunter

Oak Cliff's Ed Sebesta helped topple Trent Lott

No one--least of all Ed Sebesta--would argue that Ed Sebesta of Oak Cliff brought down Trent Lott. But I can make a pretty good case that Lott would still be majority leader of the Senate if Sebesta had never been born.

I have written about Sebesta before: A computer engineer by trade, he was drawn into an avocation as a Web archivist by local issues, beginning with his unsuccessful campaign in the early 1990s to have the statue of Robert E. Lee removed from Lee Park on Turtle Creek. From Lee Park, Sebesta quickly spread his electronic tentacles. (See "Southern Fried," July 1, 1999.)

A high-energy, nervously bright man, Sebesta used his computer know-how and the nascent power of the Web to gather information and intelligence on neo-Confederates--white supremacist, right-wing radicals around the nation. Not skinheads. Not Nazis, Klansmen, militiamen, Aryan Nationals or other easily dismissed characters from the Halloween Right. Sebesta was plumbing a different phenomenon--tenured professors, pundits, politicians and clergy who maintain a double public life, contained and civilized before the big audience but extremely radical, even seditious, in articles and lectures traded more or less behind the scenes in small journals and on Web pages. The third rail powering this train of thought is a deep-seated and bitterly resentful rejectionism--the belief that everything in America since midcentury has been wrong-headed and a tragedy for white males.

For his role in exposing the radical right fringe of the Republican Party, Ed Sebesta has been called "a really important national figure."
Peter Calvin
For his role in exposing the radical right fringe of the Republican Party, Ed Sebesta has been called "a really important national figure."

And please understand: I look in the mirror all the time and think something tragic is happening to midcentury white males. They seem to be losing their hair and getting all wrinkly, for one thing. But this is not about malaise. What Sebesta has gathered, he believes, is evidence of a serious movement among educated people who are racist advocates of secession and a second civil war.

This might all be arcane were it not for the embrace of these people by the Republican Party. The party of Ronald Reagan and the Bushes has courted ultra-conservative Southerners avidly, even though their number includes people who are, according to Sebesta, closer politically to Timothy McVeigh than to Dwight Eisenhower.

Sebesta's work gradually earned him credibility in the 1990s. In 1998 Sebesta's archives were a source for reporters who did stories on Trent Lott's affiliation with the Council of Conservative Citizens, a far-right group. In 2000 Sebesta's files seem to have played a role in stories that contributed to the defeat of John Ashcroft by Missouri Governor Mel Carnahan in a run for the Senate. But the clearest case for his influence is in this most recent cycle of stories on Lott.

Last December 5, Senator Lott, the majority leader from Mississippi, addressed a 100th birthday party for Strom Thurmond, retiring Republican senator from South Carolina, who had been leader of the segregationist Dixiecrats in the 1940s. In the course of his remarks, 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."

Even though a dozen or so mainstream media reporters were present and heard Lott make the remarks, none was bestirred to write a story leading with the fact that one of the nation's most powerful leaders had just uttered a rejection of racial integration. Days later the story oozed into the news cycle from a single network television story.

When that report and a few subsequent iterations managed to ignite small sparks of controversy, Lott reverted to what is now common political street practice: He gave a little bit of an apology for the remarks, while also putting a little bit of English on them as a mere off-the-cuff gaffe, hoping to wet down the story through the critical 24-hour news cycle.

But in Trent Lott's remarks Ed Sebesta heard more than a casual gaffe. Apparently lulled into carelessness by his warmly receptive audience, the senator from Mississippi had spoken to the big audience in the vocabulary of radical rejectionism, normally uttered only before carefully sheltered audiences of like-minded souls. It was a gaffe the size of a Mack truck, and Sebesta was the man to put the pedal to the metal. He began immediately e-mailing key elements of his files on Lott, including an interview that Lott had given to the neo-Confederate magazine Southern Partisan for its fall 1984 edition.

Lott, who was then minority whip in the House, described the Republican Party as the party of Jefferson Davis, a smart slap in the face for those who'd been taught since grammar school that it was the party of Lincoln. In the interview Lott made reference to the Republican Platform adopted in Dallas at the Reagan '84 re-election convention.

At that convention 18 years ago, by the way, I heard the Reverend W.A. Criswell, pastor of Dallas' First Baptist Church, make remarks eerily similar to Lott's recent words. Criswell painted Dallas as a place that had successfully resisted much of the change brought about elsewhere in the civil rights years and suggested that the rest of the country would have been better off had it been able to follow Dallas' lead. Criswell's words then demonstrate to me that Lott's recent words were hardly off-the-cuff or a gaffe--more like the expression of a long-standing party line among Jeff Davis Dixiecans.

Ed Sebesta made sure that message got out.

In the past, Sebesta has been able to get his material before the public by working directly through major media reporters. In the birthday party blowup there was an intriguing intermediate role played by the relatively new phenomenon of bloggers. Forgive us all for not knowing: Bloggers are people who maintain private "Web logs" or Web pages in which they express their opinions and provide information. Much of what appears on Web logs is indecipherable babble, but a cadre of credentialed writer-reporters has entered the field, and some already have become go-to sources for major media reporters.

One of the most quoted of these is Washington blogger Joshua Micah Marshall, a regular contributor himself to major newspapers and magazines who also maintains a Web log called "Talking Points Memo" (www.j-marshall.com).

Marshall's Web log has been credited by a number of national reporters with having kept the Lott story alive, providing the doses of deep background that defeated Lott's serial attempts at spin.

What's striking about the birthday-party story is that it defied the typical logic of the news cycle: It started small, sputtered to nothing, smoldered for days and then leapt into flame later, after the major media had more or less abandoned it. In trying to explain the anomalous process of the story itself, Howard Kurtz in The Washington Post and Paul Krugman in The New York Times both mentioned bloggers in general and Marshall in particular. Krugman called Marshall's Web log "must reading for the politically curious" and said Marshall was "more than anyone else...responsible for making Trent Lott's offensive remarks the issue they deserve to be."

Marshall told me that Sebesta provided him much of the documentation he put on his page. "Ed was definitely a major resource for me in covering the Trent Lott story, and I know that he was for other journalists as well," Marshall said. "He [Sebesta] is a really important national figure."

Thomas B. Edsall of The Washington Post has written and co-authored some of the most influential stories on Trent Lott from 1998 until now. He told me that Sebesta has consistently been an important source during that entire span of time. "He has over the years provided me substantial material that has been very useful." Edsall said he began relying on Sebesta four years ago for stories on Lott's involvement with the Council of Conservative Citizens.

"Ed was crucial in that," Edsall said. He said in the birthday-party story that resulted in Lott's ouster as majority leader, the historical background was key. "The historical record has been crucial, and Ed is a guy who keeps track of things from the present to way, way back."

Peter Applebome at The New York Times gave me a nuanced view that probably is not far from what many reporters at his level think of Sebesta: "In his role as an accumulator and collector of information, he is without peer." He said Sebesta's archival material is invaluable for the light it sheds on "the vast world of people who are very, very loosely associated as neo-Confederate."

Applebome said he thinks neo-Confederates "range from groups that are either entirely benign and have benign qualities to groups that are Klan and worse, genuine hate groups.

"If there is a part of Ed that I am a bit skeptical about, it's that I don't know that his interpretations are always entirely ones that I would always agree with. But that really doesn't matter, because you're not really going to him for his interpretations. You're looking for what Trent Lott has said about neo-Confederates and where, and he will get it for you."

I don't disagree with Applebome. When I had lunch with Sebesta a week ago at Gloria's in Oak Cliff, I was struck again by two things. Sebesta is hard to understand when he expresses his views. But he makes more sense and sounds more cogent the more effort I invest.

He promised ominously that all his far-flung chickens may come home to roost in Dallas some day, given that this is where he started and that Dallas has always been home to a crypto-encampment of ultra-right rejectionist Jeff Davis Dixiecans. Maybe it's the effect of the holiday season, but, for me, just imagining those chickens winging their way home at last is like sugar plums dancing in my head.

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