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Trent Lott: Freed from the constraints of leadership

By Paul M. Weyrich
web posted June 2, 2003

Back when I came to Washington in January of 1967, being a conservative on Capitol Hill was a fairly lonely experience. Here and there, I would encounter a fellow staffer with like-minded views in the offices of a conservative Republican Senator (although in many cases their staffs were as liberal as could be) or, quite often, in the offices of a Southern Democrat Senator.

A journalist friend arranged to have me invited to a monthly dinner hosted by a retired general who had been a Washington, D.C. commissioner back when the District was run by a three man commission. There I met some fellow Republican Senate staffers who worked just a few doors away from the offices of the late Senator Gordon Allott (R-CO) for whom I worked. And there were some conservative Democrats as well. One of them was an assistant to Rep. Bill Colmer of Mississippi, the chairman of the then -powerful Rules Committee. His name was Trent Lott. He was sharp and articulate and absolutely solid on the issues.

We began to work together on some issues of mutual concern and by 1970 I had introduced him to a young speechwriter who also worked for Senator Allott. His name was George Will. Along with Walter Mote, who was then Administrative Assistant to the late Vice President Spiro T. Agnew, Will and Lott and I formed the Conservative Lunch Club of Capitol Hill. I well recall the first meeting because I had to rush back from a bill signing in the Oval Office with then-President Richard Nixon. Nixon was unusually chatty and I ended up being late to my own lunch.

But we were thrilled with the turnout for that luncheon. Sixty Hill staffers attended. Each month for the next three years we produced a major program. Will and I used our connections in the Senate, Mote with the Administration, and Lott in the House. We had hit after hit. In the process, I got to know Lott better and better. Lott and I, along a half-dozen others, took a fact-finding trip (a.k.a junket) in January of 1972 to Taiwan and Hong Kong and Japan. Ed Feulner, who then was chief of staff to Rep. Phil Crane (R-IL) and who now is president of the Heritage Foundation, and I visited with Lott for hours on that long trip. Mr. Colmer was preparing to retire and Lott intended to run to take his place.

Lott shocked us by telling us that he thought he would run as a Republican! We tried to talk him out of that since Mississippi had only elected one Republican to Congress in all the years since Reconstruction. But he sensed a change coming in the South and indeed he was elected as a Republican in 1972. Just eight years later, when Ronald Reagan was elected president and Republicans greatly increased their numbers in the House, Lott was elected Whip, the number two post in the GOP's House leadership, right after the post of Minority Leader. We would talk often. He still professed the same principles as always but he said that then-Minority Leader Bob Michel (R-IL) didn't want to rock the boat so he couldn't accomplish what we both believed in.

Frustrated with operating under Michel, unable to see when Michel would retire, and clearly unable to see a time when Republicans would control the House, Lott ran and won a Senate seat in 1988.

Soon Lott was in a small leadership post but it was a good steppingstone for him to challenge then - Republican Whip Sen. Alan Simpson (R-WY), who had angered conservatives on a variety of fronts. Lott defeated Simpson by one vote.

It is highly unusual for Republicans to turn out an incumbent leader, so Lott began his work in the leadership with a great deal of prestige. Lott continued to attend the Steering Committee lunches, the caucus of conservative Senators. He said all the right things, but once again was hemmed in by then-Republican Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-KS). Just a few months later Dole resigned to run for president. Lott was challenged for Majority Leader by the senior Senator from Mississippi, Thad Cochran. Cochran received only eight votes out of 55 Senators voting. Our friend Trent Lott was at last Majority Leader. He had the strongest mandate any leader has had in recent memory. Howard Baker became Republican leader by a single vote, for example.

Trent LottWe expected great things from Lott. But from that day forward until he was unfairly forced from office early this year, our friend was a constant disappointment. He did not advance conservative principles. He was ever so cautious that very little was accomplished under his watch. The problem, it seems, is that Lott now viewed all 55 Senators as his constituents. Those included the likes of Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA) and Olympia Snowe (R-ME). He was constantly trying to reconcile all sides. Frequently that was impossible. It left him more frustrated then when he was constrained by Bob Michel and Bob Dole.

While he did keep the Republican caucus reasonably happy in that there were few fights (except for the Chemical Weapons Convention when he backed President Clinton and split his colleagues right down the middle), he did not emerge as the strong, principled leader we always knew him to be. That was perhaps my greatest disappointment in 45 years of political life.

As readers of this column know I defended Lott over the Thurmond flap. He was just trying to make an old man feel good on his 100th birthday. Still and all, I believe this story has a happy ending. Bill Frist is turning out to be a good leader. Lott is now Chairman of the Senate Rules Committee. There is a certain irony to that development in that he began his political life in Washington working for the Chairman of the House Rules Committee.

Freed of his obligation (from his perspective) to please everyone and to reconcile that which cannot be reconciled, Lott is emerging as his old self again. He is advocating the radical solution for ending the filibuster by the Democrats against the President's judicial nominees that I wrote about last month.

Lott told the Jackson Clarion-Ledger regarding that solution to the filibuster "I am perfectly prepared to blow the [Senate] up. No problem. What good are we doing anyway?"

Senator Snowe and many of his critics over the Thurmond affair acknowledge that Lott has handled himself with extraordinary grace and without bitterness since he was forced to resign as leader. "He has done an admirable job making what would be a very difficult transition for anyone" Snowe told the Clarion-Ledger.

Even though Bush pulled the rug out from under Lott during the Thurmond flap, Lott is helping Bush however he can. "It's not about me," Lott said.

He called the Senate passed tax bill "a piece of junk" and said Senators ought to crawl on their hand and knees to beg the House to pass their bill through the conference committee. That is the old Trent we knew and loved. Thanks to the Republican Study Committee in the House, which Lott helped to form in 1973, the conference committee emerged with the best compromise possible.

Lott has retained his sense of humor. A group in his home state wanted to roast him for a fundraising event. He told them that might not be a good idea because "you can't roast toast."

Lott will never be leader again and yet in his new position it is entirely possible that he will at last be able to put forth those conservative principles which made him such a solid friend as we battled the wars in those early and lonely days.

Paul M. Weyrich is Chairman and CEO of the Free Congress Foundation.

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