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December 31, 2002
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COMMENTARIES: President Pro Tem

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The United States Senate has an opportunity to start the New Years off right. With new leadership.

Lott's out, Frist's in as Republican majority leader. Nevadans can cheer that Harry Reid may soon be minority leader.

This will be the highest post a Nevadan has held in the Senate since Key Pittman reigned as President Pro Tempore. That's a position to think about.

In the whole Strom Thurmond--Trent Lott Imbroglio, we totally overlooked the fact that Thurmond--with his baggage--segregation, infirmities of old age--served as the President Pro Tempore for 13 of the past 22 years. As President pro tempore he was in accordance with the Succession Act of 1947--three heart beats away from being president. He was third in line to the White House behind President Reagan--who suffered an assassination attempt, Bush the 41st, and Speaker Tip O'Neil, a cancer victim.

The Republicans put Thurmond in that position, but we can't let the Democrats off the hook, no matter how much they like to point fingers.

Let's think back to July 28, 1972. On that day the Democrat majority of the U.S. Senate unanimously selected a new President Pro Tempore. So who did the company of McGovern, Kenndey, Muskie, Humphrey, Ervin, and Nevada's Howard Cannon and Alan Bible pick? None other than Senator James Eastland of Mississippi.

Eastland was an outspoken champion of segregation. He had previously addressed a White Citizens Council saying - and I'm QUOTING, "When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives..." end of quote. He had not changed his views by 1972. He was an ardent supporter of George Wallace for President.

The Democrats with the rest of us cringed at Senator Lott's recent remarks. Democrats did not make favorable remarks about a James Eastland presidency. No. What did they do? They put him in the direct line of succession to the actual presidency. Three heart beats away.

And from 1972 to 1979 who stood in front of Senator Eastland keeping him from the White House? Vice President Agnew--oops, he resigned. Two heart beasts away. A President named Nixon, oops, another resignation. One heart beat away. A Strong heart. No! Our third line of defense against James Eastland actually becoming president of the United States of America was Speaker of the House Carl Albert, a man who had previously suffered a massive heart attack. We survived--why have we forgotten.

Before The Democrats choose Eastland as President Pro Tempore, they selected Senators Alan Ellender of Louisiana, Mississippi, George of Georgia, Russell of Georgia, and our own Pittman. Afterwards they selected Stennis of Mississippi, and Robert Byrd of West Virginia, a former member of the Ku Klux Klan.

In this day of world terrorism we must have in the line of succession persons capable of being president. The Senate will soon select a new President Pro Tempore. Let's break with the tradition of selecting the most senile bigot to be three heart beats away. Let the Republicans and Democrats get together and select a Senator who has shown leadership and an ability to command national respect. My candidates are Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman.

We should celebrate Harry Reid's new celebrity, but we must urge our Senator's Reid and Ensign to use their brains on this one. If they cannot do so, then please pass a law taking the post of President Pro Tempore out of the line of succession to the Presidency.

And I am Bill Thompson.

Bill Thompson is a professor of public administration at UNLV.

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