Emerging From The 2002 “Thurmond Event” As The Legislative Go-To Guy, The Junior Senator From Mississippi Says This Last Run Is For The Folks Back Home.
Part 1 of 2
By Perry Hicks- Special to GulfCoastNews.com Filed 6/15/06 GCN
One has to have watched Trent Lott over a number of years to appreciate his consistency: What you see is what you get. When he greets you in his office smiling and shaking your hand, his grip is firm and his pleasure at meeting you is genuine as is his pride in Mississippi.
“All of the art work here are from Mississippi artists,” Lott said smiling as his eyes surveyed his senate office, “And that picture there was my home in Pascagoula.”
Katrina destroyed the Tidewater-style farmhouse so completely photos taken soon after the storm showed nary a trace of the 153 year old structure. It was almost as if a crew had come in to clear away even the smallest pieces of debris.
The home had apparently meant everything to Lott as his 2005 memoir, Herding Cats, refers repeatedly to it as a refuge away from the rigors of Washington, D.C.
Lott’s office occupies 10 rooms in the 100 year old Russell Senate Office building just northeast of the Capitol.
When he first came to the Senate in 1989, his office was in the 1970s designed Hart building. “I like the traditional style, high ceilings and moldings,” he added, “The Hart is too modern and the Dirksen is just too fifty-ish.”
The Beaux Arts style Russell Building was opened in 1909 to relieve extreme overcrowding in the Capitol building itself. At that time, each Senator was authorized just 2 rooms with a fireplace. The building is named after Georgia Senator Richard Brevard Russell, a Democrat.
Back in that day, each Senator had just 2 staffers; a secretary and a messenger. Today, the combined staff for all senators and committees numbers over 7000.
It should also be noted that Lott’s dedication to tradition goes well beyond architecture and interior design. He highly respects authority and reveres the institutions for which he serves. Ironically, these are the very qualities that both propelled and removed him from the very pinnacle of legislative power.
Including his 4 years as a staffer, Lott has served in Washington a total of 38 years.
He first came to office in 1972 taking the seat from then retiring 5th Congressional District representative, William Colmer. 16 years later, he ran for and won the seat of Democrat John C. Stennis when the 87 year old senator announced that he would not run for another term.
“While the thought of retirement did come up in 2000, the fact that I had been continuously in a leadership position for so many years the idea of one more term giving me some kind of record helped me make the decision to stay,” said Lott.
2000 was an all-around tough electioneering year. The presidential race was so tight the U.S. Supreme Court had to overrule the Florida Supreme Court on the hanging chads controversy.
In the Senate, the 55 seat majority the Republicans had enjoyed from 1994 was whittled down to an even 50-50 split. While the Constitution anticipates ties in Presidential races, there are no provisions in it for handling organizational politics. There are no procedures for deciding who will be majority leader and which party will chair committees.
Power sharing is what Lott had to work out with then Democrat Senate Majority Leader, Tom Daschle, of South Dakota. While some Republicans felt the vice president gave them a 1 vote majority advantage, the senate parliamentarian ruled that the VP is not a senator. However, the fact that the VP could break tie votes was a strong incentive for Daschle to cooperate with Lott.
The resulting compromise gave Democrats parity with Republicans in regard to budgets, staffs and office space as well as representation on all committees. However, Lott retained the all important “priority right of recognition-” the first to be recognized by the presiding officer, the Vice President or, in his absence, the President Pro tempore of the United States Senate. Possessing this right allowed for Lott to control legislation.
The compromise was not welcomed by Republican firebrands but, as Lott points out in Herding Cats, if the senate had digressed into internecine warfare it would have negatively impacted the incoming Bush administration. Voters expect legislators to make laws, not to wage internal power struggles while nothing substantive gets done.
Still, some felt Lott was much too cozy with the highly partisan Daschle and any manner of power sharing would only open the door for Democrat troublemaking.
On this last point, his critics were correct.
Strom Thurmond Event
“It bothers them (the Washington elite) that I am from Mississippi and both pragmatic, and a populist,” Lott said smiling broadly. He then went on to give an example of how in his opinion the oil companies are hurting everyday Americans.
Indeed, as a Republican, Lott is hardly the stereotypical blue blood patrician. His father was a Carroll County sharecropper- a vocation that is at best abstract to most Washington journalists. Lott’s father first supplemented the farm income by doing part-time mechanical work. Later, he moved the family to Pascagoula where he worked full time in the shipyard.
The hardness of Lott’s early childhood life can only be understood in the context of Carroll County’s economic situation. After the civil war, viable towns such as Blackhawk and Carrolton withered when, purely for ease of laying track, railroads ran their lines far to the east. Ancient hamlets, such as Coila (pr. Co-eye-lah) fell into ruin.
But other places came into their own as train stops and watering stations brought populations to such towns as Vaiden (where the courthouse scene in the movie Mississippi Burning was filmed in 1988) and Grenada (located in an adjacent county and where Trent Lott was born in the fall of 1941.)
Carroll County was essentially bypassed by modern progress. Blackhawk and Carrollton changed so little over the decades, the movie The Reivers was shot in Carrollton because of its turn-of-the-century appearance. Little had to be done beyond covering the asphalt roads with pea gravel.
Lott’s mother taught school and attended classes at Holmes Junior college before taking correspondence courses from Ole Miss (University of Mississippi.) The lesson Lott learned was to work hard and constantly improve oneself.
While Lott’s memoir states that he had no ambition to enter politics while he was attending Ole Miss, two classmates, who have asked not to be identified, felt otherwise saying, “Trent was very ambitious. We always knew he would run for office.”
If anyone wanted to challenge Lott on his claim about irking liberals, one point is certainly indisputable; his deep southern roots.
In the salons of New York and Washington, being a conservative white southerner is equated with being a racist struggling to roll back the clock to the “good old days” of segregation.
At least that is what they would want you to believe. That is the point they hypocritically pounded home after Lott told the 100 year old Senator Strom Thurmond, “Mississippi had voted for him for president in 1948 and if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all of these problems over the years, either.”
The remark was actually the sort of nonsensical compliment one would throw to an old man who had spent nearly half a century in the U.S. Senate. Still, Thurmond had run on the segregationist Dixiecrat ticket 54 years prior and consequently Lott’s off-hand remark would be used to drive him from power.
This same level of criticism was certainly not applied to West Virginia’s Democrat senator, Robert C. Byrd. Beginning in the 1940s, Byrd was both a Klan recruiter (Kleagle) and an “Exalted Cyclops” or local chapter leader.
While Byrd claims that he quickly lost interest in the organization, as a U.S. Senator, Byrd not only voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he filibustered its passage for 14 hours.
Indeed, it was the Republicans who voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Democrats that fought to defeat it.
The cause for this liberal hypocrisy is fundamental: They have simply never forgiven Republicans for the “Southern Strategy” that busted up the old Democrat “Solid South.” While liberals would like you to think this emptied the Democrat Party of bigots, it also denied liberals the southern tier states and their precious and growing number of electoral votes.
Hence, liberals continually seek to marginalize the Reagan Revolution and all who participated in it as inherently racist.
Be it known that as a weapon of personal destruction, an accusation of racism has no peer. One needs no proof to make a charge stick and no defense can be adequate. Furthermore, there is presently no inoculation available to ward off infection. The most victims can hope for is the steadfast support of family and friends.
Unfortunately, Lott’s fellow Republicans did not stand by the man who had for all those years unswervingly stood by them.
Et Tu Caesar?
When GCN asked University of Virginia Professor of Political Science and frequent cable news guest, Larry Sabato, why the Republicans so readily abandoned Lott, he simply answered, “He made too many enemies.” When pressed for specifics Sabato could offer none.
But there are good reasons why Lott was forced to resign his post as Majority Leader. To simply chalk up this character assassination as an enemies list that reached critical mass will not suffice. Lott himself has alternatingly directed his blame between the current Majority Leader, Bill Frist, and George W. Bush.
“Did the president pull the rug out from under me? Probably,” Lott said in a tone of hesitant admission, “But it does no good to be bitter. This is a tough business and he did what he thought he had to do. The president is a good man and I continue to support him.”
However, Lott is a bit more sanguine in Herding Cats stating that he would still be Majority Leader if Bill Frist had not run for the post; a move Lott takes as a personal betrayal considering Frist had once been Lott’s protégé.
Lott also accuses White House Deputy Chief of Staff, Karl Rove, of masterminding the operation ostensibly because “the situation,” meaning the media coverage, was “spinning out of control.”
According to the memoir, the president would have backed off had Lott only delivered an emotional mea culpa sooner. Without the White House leaking and “stirring the pot,” as Lott calls it, his leadership would have survived.
As attractive as this notion may sound, it is incorrect. The real reason is ironically what brought him to national power in the first place: Pragmatism.
When the House Managers ceremonially walked their impeachment charges against Clinton over to the Senate, they had every reason to expect a full and impartial trial- followed by a conviction. Kenneth Starr’s $40 million investigation had showed that during the course of a sexual harassment trial in Arkansas (Paula Jones case,) Clinton had perjured himself and obstructed justice. The questions Clinton sought to avoid revolved around sexual escapades he had with a White House intern named Monica Lewinsky. Those escapades were alleged to have happened directly off of the Oval Office.
Regardless of what Democrat operatives may have said on television and radio about the allegations being merely about sex, the fact is that the president had been cited for contempt of court which later resulted in his disbarment from practicing law in both Arkansas and the U.S. Supreme Court.
Even worse were allegations that the president had not only molested Democrat volunteer Kathleen Willey in the White House in 1993, he had also been accused of the raping another Arkansas Democrat campaign volunteer back in 1978 (Juanita Broaddrick.)
As damning as Starr’s report was, there simply was not enough votes in the Senate to convict him. Lott knew this and felt that an extended trial stretching out for weeks and possibly even months would only soil the reputation of congress. The damage to the presidency had already been done. Daschle desperately wanted to avoid having a Democrat president driven from office.
Lott had spent the Reagan years as the House Minority Whip and one year as Senate Majority Whip before he became Majority Leader in 1996. He knows how to count votes and what he counted in a senate evenly split between Republicans and Democrats meant there was no possible conviction.
The rules set down were simple; the trial would be short and the witnesses would be limited. The House Impeachment Managers were incensed.
Lott’s pragmatic view saved the Senate from having to hear weeks, if not months, of sordid testimony. Furthermore, the honor of the office of president would not be damaged beyond repair.
In the end, the vote on Clinton came down along party lines.
For these transgressions, Lott became earmarked for destruction. While many would have thought Lott would resign from office- the preferred choice of an honorable man so dishonored- once again Lott’s pragmatism would direct his fate.
Only 3 years into a 6 year term, Lott fully realized that a senate appointment by then Democrat Governor Ronnie Musgrove would have permanently handed his seat over the Democrats. That would have thrown the senate balance back to an untenable 49-51 split giving the Democrats control of the Senate.
As Lott expressed it in Herding Cats, “… I couldn’t ruin this shining chance in which the White House, the House, and the Senate would all be controlled by Republicans.”
Lott decided to stay on in the Senate. His resignation would only go as far as Majority Leader.
Last October, under speculation that he would seek to fill Trent Lott’s soon to be vacated seat, Congressman Gene Taylor announced that he would not be running for the U.S. Senate. This opened the door for other senate hopefuls. Lott’s staff was increasingly being asked what his intentions were.
Explaining the situation to GCN, Lott said, “In 2005 my mother died, my house in Pascagoula was destroyed by the storm, and I had a health problem- not a heart attack or something serious mind you- but an infection probably as a result of the hurricane. So, when I went home for Christmas, my wife and I felt this would be a good time to be retiring. We thought that an announcement after the holidays would be a good way to break the news. However, on the 27th, my wife, Tricia, came to me sensing a change in heart. She said to me, “You aren’t going to retire, are you?”
“While I was home, I had talked to friends- supporters- and my family and I saw that the folks on the Coast were hammered- tired- they kept asking me, “You are going to rebuild, aren’t you?”
“But what cemented it for me was my daughter, Tyler. While Tricia and my son, Chet, wanted me to retire, it was Tyler who was against it. I asked her what was different about her, she said to me, “Dad, I live in Mississippi and I know how much we need you.”
Being a politician means that you have to always “be on;” there are few moments you can have all to yourself. Most days Lott’s schedule starts very early and runs into the evening. At critical times, Senate deliberations may even carry over into the wee hours of the morning.
It is in this context we can appreciate why Lott would look forward to retirement. It isn’t that he looks weary or is overwhelmed by the job. On the contrary, he remains a masterful legislator who continues to show great skill in threading bills through both houses.
“I still feel good about getting up and coming to work,” Lott said smiling, “And I am confident that I can still get legislation through congress. It is just that it is time.”
In Part 2, Senator Lott speaks to the subject of the CSX railroad, America’s eroding industrial base, the dissatisfaction the conservative base has with Washington, and his view of how Coast reconstruction will take Mississippi into the future.
About the Author.....
Perry Hicks is a former Mississippi Coast resident and was a correspondent for the old Gulfport Star Journal. He has appeared on Fox News Channel. Perry has also hosted his own radio talk show on the auto industry with a mix of politics. Perry is a former college professor and is a senior writer for GCN on stories of national importance with local interests. His articles can be found in the GCN Archive.
Contact the Author: email@example.com