WASHINGTON — Defenders of Republican piety have in recent years pointed to the emergence of a handful of African-Americans in the Bush administration and in statewide races as evidence that the GOP of recent decades was dead and gone. Now here comes a ghost of Dixie’s past to remind us that, contrary to all that vigorous spinning, the old Republican Party is still alive and kicking.

Just days after a group of prominent black politicians in Maryland endorsed Republican Michael Steele in that state’s Senate race to “send a message” to the Democrats, the Republicans turned right around and sent their own unmistakable signal to blacks who may have been considering similar overtures: No thanks. They did so by electing Trent Lott as minority whip, the party’s No. 2 post in the Senate.

It’s hard to see how that move relates to outgoing Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman’s talk about expanding the party’s traditional base. It’s also hard to see how the resurgence of Lott fits with John McCain’s call for a return to common-sense conservatism which, in his view, requires “recovering our principles first.” McCain should have fun explaining that one as he explores his presidential possibilities, along with his recent praise of Lott as “the most effective leader I know.”

Nothing the Democrats have been accused of in their relationship with black voters — including arrogance, cluelessness and callous indifference — measures up to the egregious return of the gleeful Jim Crow nostalgist from Pascagoula.

Lott’s ascendance will clear up any ambivalence among blacks who may have been impressed by the party’s recent backing of Steele, Lynn Swann and J. Kenneth Blackwell in high-profile races. Instead, that support will be regarded as a passing phase, an anomaly amid a group that also inflamed racial resentment with a commercial attacking black candidate Harold Ford Jr. during his campaign for a U.S. Senate seat from Tennessee. Which is the real Republican Party? Lott’s re-emergence seems to make that a moot point.

Democrats, who already have much to cheer about these days, have to be ecstatic about having Lott back in the spotlight. His visibility allows them to dredge up all those things about his party that have made African-Americans wary — if not disgusted — in the past.

They get to repeat, for example, that before he broke away from the Democrats and became a Republican patriarch, Strom Thurmond ran for president in 1948 on a platform promising that “all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches.” Then they get to remind voters that Lott sang a song of praise to such states’ rights defiance at Thurmond’s birthday party in 2002: “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.”

After Lott’s initial attempt to dismiss his remarks as a poor choice of words only heaped more scorn upon him, he went on to apologize for “opening old wounds.” Part of the problem, obviously, was that he didn’t realize how long those wounds fester. All the emotion on display at the recent dedication ceremony for the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial on the Mall in Washington demonstrated that the recovery process is still going on.

Lott’s former No. 2, Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, will be minority leader. Lott conceded center stage — for the moment — at a news conference while McConnell spoke of being “a robust minority, a vigorous minority, and hopefully a minority that is only in that condition for a couple of years.” And that’s probably about as close as Republicans on the Hill are going to get to expressing concern for minority interests.

In his memoir published last year, Lott described winning 13 percent of the black vote in his 1988 Senate victory over Democrat Wayne Dowdy as “the start of a slow march of African-Americans into the Republican ranks.” He should not be surprised if that “march,” as he optimistically put it, slows to a dead halt by 2008.

“The past is not dead,” observed another Mississippian, William Faulkner. “… It’s not even past.”

We can’t escape history, a quite different Republican named Abraham Lincoln once noted. Trent Lott won’t be able to elude its clutches either. Nor should we let him.

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