Sen. Trent Lott is trying to make a comeback, and he’s doing it at the expense of some of his Republican colleagues, including Bill Frist and some folks in the Bush administration.
It takes a certain determination for a politician to fall so spectacularly from grace and then refuse to go away. Lott, 63, a shipyard worker’s son who grew up in Pascagoula, is clawing his way back to power because, well, he can’t help himself. “I’m just rooting around trying to find ways to be useful,” Lott said recently during a visit back home, ticking off a few of his projects: helping to arrange a deal on the 2006 budget, working to change immigration laws and pass highway funding, and trying to quell a Democratic uprising over judicial nominations. “Maybe what I’m doing is what comes naturally to me.”
Lott’s demise after six years as majority leader and Republican leader was self-inflicted. At Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th-birthday party Dec. 5, 2002 — a month after the Republicans reclaimed control of the Senate from the Democrats — Lott noted Thurmond’s 1948 run for president on the anti-civil-rights “Dixiecrat” ticket and said that “we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years” had Thurmond won. Lott insisted he was just trying to flatter the old man, but once the line received widespread media attention it triggered a national furor.
Lott apologized repeatedly for his remarks; appeared on Black Entertainment Television to swear allegiance to civil rights, including affirmative action; and called colleagues to explain and apologize.
But nothing worked. African Americans seethed, some conservatives joined liberals in calling for his resignation, and President Bush sharply criticized him. Lott resigned as majority leader-designate in late December and was succeeded by Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), a favorite of the White House. While Frist is as conservative as Lott on many issues, Frist has a smoother image and the administration viewed him as a more reliable partner.
Given how Bush and some of his GOP colleagues abandoned him, Lott figures he owes them nothing. “I feel perfectly at liberty now to shoot at anyone,” Lott told Rotary Club luncheon guests. He then proceeded to say of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, “His degree of arrogance just turns me off.”
Another Lott target is a White House commission on military base closings, which the senator views as a threat to installations in Mississippi. Hoping to slow the commission’s work, he blocked the confirmation of the commission’s designated chairman, Anthony J. Principi. Last week, Bush used his recess-appointment power to install Principi, along with eight other commission members, while Congress was away on an Easter break.
“He did what he had to,” Lott said of Bush. The senator said he is considering his next move. “Everything in the Senate relates to everything else,” Lott told reporters cheerfully. “I’m never done.”
Some observers, including senators and aides who do not care for Lott, speculate that he is engaging in advance damage control, in the event his forthcoming memoir portrays those behind his downfall in a harsh light. Lott says the book will look broadly at his entire career. But he said he does “make it clear” that he was not pleased with how Bush responded to the controversy over his 2002 Thurmond birthday party remarks, and that “I would have been leader today if Frist hadn’t made his move.”
It sounds like David Brooks’ theory that the Republicans do best when they’re fighting among themselves is about to get a work-out. Far be it from me — or any liberal — to stand in their way.