When Trent Lott made his fatal remark about Strom Thurmond and old times gone but not forgotten, Gordon L. Baum went from the obscurity of being just another one of Chuck Norman's wacky talk-show hosts to the instant stardom of providing sound bites in defense of the senator to anyone who would dial him up.
He's been here before. He'll be here again.
Seems as if every time a big-time politician such as Lott makes a major gaffe with regard to race, he also manages to stub his tongue on Baum, a semiretired St. Charles lawyer who handles personal-injury cases.
It's not because Baum is suing them. Nor is it the sweep and reach of his talk show on Norman's WGNU (920 AM), where he takes stands against busing, affirmative action, immigration and the decline of the white race.
Around here, the 62-year-old Baum is a fairly obscure fellow and has been since the school desegregation battles of the 1970s and '80s died down. He can rant all he wants in a town where mainly the like-minded listen.
But out there in that curious mix of electrons that make up a major media storm, Baum takes on a more powerful persona. That's because of the other hat he wears -- chief executive officer of the Council of Conservative Citizens, a widely scattered outfit dedicated to the notion that white America must be redeemed.
Long before making his comment about ol' Strom, Lott had to explain why he spoke at a meeting of the CCC in his home state of Mississippi and warmly praised them for defending the flag and the Constitution. That was in 1999. Called on it, Lott denied knowing of the group's existence until someone showed up with photographs of him shaking hands with CCC leaders.
Those same pictures and that same history of playing footsie with Baum's group resurfaced when Lott made the remark that cost him the Senate majority leader's post.
The issue went away three years ago. It caused Lott's fall this time.
Baum was resurrected both times.
He seems amused by all the attention and disappointed by Lott's futile retreat.
"Politicians are politicians," says Baum. "This is nothing surprising. Peter denied Christ three times. They get under the barrel of the gun, and they break and run. Politicians pander to those who they think can hurt them the most."
Baum claims his group has 25,000 members in 28 states and is national in scope and power. That places him on the speed dial of reporters who write about things such as battles over busing or reparations for slavery or loose-tongued male cheerleaders like Lott who occasionally let slip their true feelings about race.
The CCC is also based here in St. Louis -- although few seem to know this. It has an innocuous-sounding name that matches the reasonable tone its members try to take as they defend the Confederate flag down in South Carolina, damn the reputation of Martin Luther King Jr. and rail against integration and immigration.
And that makes Baum's group a bit of a Trojan horse -- a direct descendant of the notorious civil-rights-era White Citizens' Council -- slapping a benign-sounding name on a very old, yet well-cloaked message.
But only to someone who hasn't visited the group's Web site, with its prominent display of a Confederate battle banner, an ad for a book that denounces the King holiday and an essay that says Lott was right in his remarks. And only a politician who isn't paying attention would fail to see the CCC as anything other than what it really is.
"They try to style themselves as a mainstream conservative organization, but that's masking an underlying racist agenda," says Marilyn Mayo, an investigator with the Anti-Defamation League of B'nai B'rith.
Baum is regularly tagged a race-baiter. He prefers to use another term: "white rights." He dares you to call him a racist and prove it. He doesn't use racial epithets.
"We're not neo-Nazis; we're not anti-Semitic," Baum says. "We represent the pro-white point of view. You can't find anywhere where we've advocated racial suppression."
But in these modern times, everybody's racism is codified, cloaked in words that carry the same message as the ones that wound. And in the battle of racial semantics, yesterday's segregationist is today's pro-white organizer. Yesterday's Kluxer now wears a suit and speaks in reasonable tones and makes extensive use of the Internet to get out his message. Yesterday's hater is today's ethnic and racial advocate.
Baum has his own pedigree. He worked for George Wallace's presidential campaigns in 1968 and 1972. He also worked for the White Citizens' Council, organizing anti-busing campaigns here and in other cities.
The line between groups such as Baum's and mainstream politicians -- particularly those of the Southern stripe -- used to be fairly permeable.
Republicans including Lott, U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft and others who struck a hard conservative stance on issues such as gun rights and abortion would routinely step over and play wink-and-nod with white-rights groups such as Baum's while trolling for votes. They also ran lures past militia groups until the Oklahoma City bombing made that unfashionable.
The line-blurring was deliberate.
"Racism is in the eye of the beholder," says Baum. "There is this prevailing attitude that only whites can be racist. If we stand up for our race, that's bad. If blacks stand up for their race, that's good."
With the end of Lott's reign and the quieting of the media storm, perhaps Baum will go back to being an obscure talk-show host.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.