Holy hell in a handbasket!
I guess it IS
Senator Trent Lott, left, pushed out of his leadership role in 2002, was named minority whip, the party’s No. 2 position, in the Senate Wednesday. Heading to a news conference with him was the rest of new Republican leadership, from left, Senators John Cornyn and Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas; John Ensign
of Nevada; the new minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; and Jon Kyl of Arizona.
By MARK LEIBOVICH
Published: November 16, 2006
WASHINGTON, Nov. 15 — In their rehabilitation campaign, Senate Republicans will rely heavily on a man whose recent history is itself a testament to sudden falls, unlikely recoveries and the fickle hands of fortune in American politics.
Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi, who went from Senate minority leader to presumptive majority leader to disgrace in a matter of days four years ago, was elected minority whip, the party’s second-ranking Senate leadership position, on Wednesday.
Usually, the choice of a whip, a vital but unglamorous job, would draw little attention. But the election of Mr. Lott offers an unlikely study in professional redemption.
“One thing that this proves is that the United States Senate, like the American public, likes a comeback story,” said Senator Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican whom Mr. Lott defeated by a single vote.
Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, who was said to be an important supporter of Mr. Lott, added, “He paid a pretty high price for the statement he made.”
Mr. McCain was referring to a 100th birthday party toast for Senator Strom Thurmond, Republican of South Carolina, in which Mr. Lott seemed to praise Mr. Thurmond, a longtime segregationist, for his 1948 presidential campaign. Noting that his home state had voted for Mr. Thurmond then, Mr. Lott added: “We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems.”
Mr. Lott, who was in line to be the Senate majority leader, explained his comments as a well-intentioned tribute to a longtime colleague. He issued serial apologies, but was eventually forced to give up his leadership position.
“We all believe in redemption,” Mr. McCain said Wednesday, adding, “Thank God.”
Republicans favored Mr. Lott for the leadership post largely because of their election losses last week. With Republicans now a minority in the Senate, Mr. Lott was seen as effective in rounding up votes and striking deals. Several senators said the caucus badly needed his legislative expertise, including his ability to work across party lines. (Among the first well-wishers to call him Wednesday were two Democrats, Tom Daschle, the former Senate Democratic leader, and Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts.)
Mr. Lott declined to be interviewed, citing a desire to allow the incoming minority leader, Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, to serve as the spokesman for the leadership team. “I’m going to shock you and defer,” Mr. Lott told reporters. “The spotlight belongs on the leader today.”
Mr. Lott, 65, made his way back into prominence by deploying the same skills that have sustained his political career. He courted and counted his votes carefully. He quietly did committee work and dutifully attended hearings. He earned credit by running for re-election this year rather than retiring, thereby saving what might have been a vulnerable Republican Senate seat. And he bided his time.
Mr. Lott has always been vigilant in allowing reason and results to prevail over emotion. He is a fierce pragmatist, who has spoken of his father’s alcoholism and its effect on him. “It makes you maybe grow up a little early,” he said in 1997.
He has always craved order and leaves little to chance. In the throes of his crisis in 2002, Mr. Lott spent hours bunkered in his home in Pascagoula, Miss., methodically calling friends and colleagues — 50 calls a day — in an effort to save his job. It was a rigorous and disciplined process, similar to the one he followed in recent days as he campaigned quietly for the whip post. He contacted colleagues by phone and in person, emphasizing his ability to get results, his encyclopedic grasp of Senate rules and his skill in working closely with the House.
Once forced out of the leadership, Mr. Lott complained bitterly that Republican senators and the Bush administration had betrayed him.
“I’d been knifed in the back,” Mr. Lott wrote in his book, “Herding Cats: A Life in Politics.” “But in order to be effective again,” he wrote, “I had to shake some of the hands that held the daggers.”
Mr. Alexander recalls seeking Mr. Lott out to make sure he attended a celebration for new senators soon after he stepped down in 2002. Few expected Mr. Lott to attend, and he was not in a celebrating mood. But he showed up . “He wasn’t pouting, “Mr. Alexander said. “He wasn’t feeling sorry for himself.”
Mr. Lott largely undertook his campaign for whip in one-on-one discussions, figuring that a visible effort would bring attention to his past troubles and perhaps scare off potential supporters.
“Nobody knew where he was; it was a stealth candidacy,” said former Senator John B. Breaux, Democrat of Louisiana and one of Mr. Lott’s closest friends. “His strategy was, ‘Run silent, run deep,’ like the old submarine.”
Mr. Lott’s “stealth” return was also forged over many quiet dealings and much legislative grunt work. “He reimmersed himself in committee work, went to a lot of hearings and asked a lot of questions,” said Senator Olympia J. Snowe, Republican of Maine. “Once you’ve been a leader, it’s hard to come back and do these things.”
Mr. Lott’s public fall was followed by a series of blunt remarks befitting a man who felt he had little to lose. “They’re going to have to deal with me,” he said of the Bush administration in a Time magazine interview in September 2003. “And they need to keep me in mind because I can be a problem.”
He became a critic of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld (“I’m not a fan,” he said in 2004.), the failed Supreme Court nominee Harriet E. Miers and Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales. He said President Bush should be “ashamed of the abysmal” way he had treated former Treasury Secretary John W. Snow, who resigned this year after months of lukewarm support from the White House. And he took repeated shots at Senator Bill Frist of Tennessee, his successor as Republican leader. (Mr. Frist did not seek re-election this year.)
Mr. Lott was at his most fervent after Hurricane Katrina. He became a vocal critic of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, challenged insurance companies that refused to cover damages from the storm and helped secure federal relief money for homeowners.
The hurricane destroyed Mr. Lott’s home on the Gulf Coast and marked a pivot point in his life and career. Mr. Lott and his wife, Tricia, had decided in 2001 that he would not run for re-election this year. But the hurricane, which he called “a disastrous event of biblical proportions,” spurred a reassessment. “I concluded that I still have a zest for the job here in Washington,” he said in a news conference early this year. One of the many congratulatory calls to Mr. Lott on Wednesday came from Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist and Louisiana native, who said she gained respect for Mr. Lott after the storm.
“I believe in reconciliation; I’ve always believed in that,” Ms. Brazile said. “I’ll never forget the morning that I had to suck it up and call Trent Lott to help me with my relatives in Mississippi.” She added, “On Katrina, he’s just been a champion.”
Among the other callers were President Bush, from Air Force One. Vice President Dick Cheney offered his best wishes in person.
“It’s just a hugely significant political victory for Trent, especially after he had the rug cut out from under him,” Mr. Breaux said.
He said he believed Mr. Lott would thrive, given the makeup of the Senate and his ability to work with Democrats .
Mr. Breaux hastened to add a caveat: “Trent promised me he’d never give speeches at any more birthday parties.”
Robin Toner and Eric Lipton contributed reporting.