In the Christian Gospel of St Matthew, Mary and the infant Jesus receive a visit from "magi" bearing gifts. The magi were a class of priestly scholars in ancient Persia; they were renowned for their knowledge of the stars, prophetic insight and great wisdom - hence the translation "wise men" that is sometimes used in English. The gospel does not specify their number, but tradition has settled on three, and among Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians, their visit is associated with the great feast of the Epiphany on January 6, the last of the twelve days of Christmas.
In the Middle Ages popular tradition embellished the story in two ways. First, it cast the gift-bearing magi as kings, giving rise to the alternate name for Western Epiphany, namely "Three Kings Day" - the big day for gifts in most of the Hispanic world. Second, the kings were imagined as coming from far-away realms and representing the different races of mankind.Renaissance artists in particular enjoyed portraying the wise men with different racial characteristics: one European, one vaguely Asiatic magus and always a black African. This convention has become a beloved symbol of the possibility of human harmony despite racial and cultural differences.
Pat Oliphant has used the story of the three wise men of different races to comment on a recent political flap. Senator Trent Lott, the leader of the Republicans in the US Senate, was recently at the 100th birthday party for fellow Republican Senator Strom Thurmond, who is about to retire. Both senators are from southeastern states. Until the 1970s, most Southern whites were Democrats. In 1948 Thurmond, then still a Democrat, ran for president on an independent ticket to protest Democratic support for the first moves to end official racial segregation in the US. In fact Democrat Harry Truman won re-election; the effort to overcome segregation went forward and Southern whites began to defect to the Republicans. Today they form an important part of the Republican electorate, but George W. Bush is eager to increase the Republican Party's appeal to non-Europeans, especially the growing Hispanic population.
At Senator Thurmond's celebration, Senator Lott remarked that it was too bad more people had not voted for Thurmond in 1948. If they had, Lott went on, America would have been spared all the trouble connected with desegregation. Lott may have been thinking about many things, but he showed little wisdom in even hinting that he supported Thurmond's racial politics from decades ago. (Senator Thurmond has since changed his views, by the way.) In the ensuing two weeks, Lott was buried under an avalanche of criticism and condemnation. His desperate efforts to explain away his remarks were unsuccessful. Lott was browbeatensintosresigning from the leadership of the Senate and President Bush (with a certain sly satisfaction, it is widely believed) supported the candidacy of a friend of his, William Frist, another Southern white politician.
Oliphant shows Senator Lott on a camel, trying to join the multi-racial three wise men on their journey to find Jesus - note the guiding star in the upper left corner. The senator has just told one of the magi that he has "recently acquired great wisdom" (presumably about race and politics) and is therefore qualified to become a wise man himself. Even his camel wears an unconvincing politician's smile. The other two magi (and their camels) eye him skeptically.