By Dana Milbank
Thursday, November 16, 2006
For the first time in recorded history, Sen. Trent Lott stared at a bank of cameras yesterday and had nothing to say.
The Mississippi Republican had just completed a political comeback worthy of Richard Nixon in '68 or Bill Clinton after Gennifer Flowers. Four years after forcing Lott to resign as majority leader because of his infelicitous plug for Strom Thurmond's segregationist campaign, Senate Republicans lifted him from disgrace and voted him in as their No. 2 leader -- and the garrulous and grateful Lott was determined to demonstrate that he could control his mouth.
"I'm going to shock you," the incoming minority whip said when reporters pleaded for a comment. "I defer, on this occasion, to our leader" -- the newly elected minority leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.). "The spotlight belongs on him."
Reporters begged to differ. Dozens of them chased Lott down the corridor. "Take it easy, folks!" a Capitol Police officer called after them as a metal barrier crashed to the marble floor. Lott still had little to say about his new job ("I'm excited about it"), his past ("I'm strictly looking forward") and how he pulled off his comeback ("That's for y'all to try to figure").
In truth, Lott's satisfied smile said all that was necessary. Moments earlier, he had broken down in tears as he thanked his colleagues for welcoming him back from the wilderness -- and senators emerging from the vote sounded as if they had just left a religious revival.
"I think everybody believes in redemption and second chances," said John Thune (S.D.), who backed Lott.
"I frankly had not anticipated the personal redemption he felt," confided Mel Martinez (Fla.), who opposed Lott.
Then came John McCain (Ariz.), whose laying on of hands sealed Lott's salvation. "We all believe in redemption," said the rogue senator. "Thank God."
In the end, though, Republicans didn't forgive Lott out of a concern for his personal growth. They forgave him because, thrust into the minority, they need his nose-counting and dealmaking skills. In the process, they risked another round of bad press ("roll the Strom Thurmond tape," a TV reporter called out after the vote) and delivered a rebuke to the White House, which orchestrated Lott's ouster.
They also made it likely that the irrepressible Lott will, in public perception at least, eclipse the low-profile McConnell as Republican leader; McConnell, unsurprisingly, backed Lott's opponent, Lamar Alexander (Tenn).
Even Alexander, though, admitted to a bit of awe as he left the Old Senate Chamber after the vote. "I think Trent proved that he's the better vote counter," said Alexander, who calculated at 11 Tuesday night that he would win by two votes; the next morning, he lost by one.
It was almost exactly four years earlier that Lott stopped by a 100th-birthday party for Thurmond and observed that "we wouldn't have had all these problems" if the Dixiecrat's segregationist campaign had succeeded in 1948, when Thurmond vowed that "all the laws of Washington and all the bayonets of the Army cannot force the Negro into our homes, our schools, our churches." Lott went through a frantic two weeks of apologies capped by an appearance on BET.
But the White House abandoned him and helped recruit Bill Frist (Tenn.) to replace Lott as majority leader. The seething Lott called Frist's act "a personal betrayal" and spent the next few years disparaging the White House. He suggested that President Bush should dump his top strategist, Karl Rove, branded White House aides "all young and inexperienced," and accused the president of "cronyism." When Harriet Miers withdrew her doomed nomination to the Supreme Court, he stood outside the Senate chamber and sang "Happy Days Are Here Again."
In his acceptance speech yesterday, the teary-eyed Lott told his colleagues that he was "humbled," and he vowed not to outshine McConnell. "Mitch," Lott told the wary minority leader at the senators-only meeting, "you were with me at times when I perhaps didn't deserve to have anyone with me. I'll be with you to the end. You're my leader."
Lott sought to demonstrate his newfound humility as he approached the microphones with the other Republican leaders. He beckoned for Kay Bailey Hutchison (Tex.), the No. 4 party leader, to stand next to McConnell, and he refused to take the spot even when she pulled on his sleeve. After lunch with senators, Lott slipped out a back door to avoid the waiting reporters. "He doesn't want to set himself up as an individual right now," explained his spokeswoman, Susan Irby.
But few expected Lott's restraint to last. He is, after all, a former Ole Miss cheerleader, a founding member of the Singing Senators, and a promoter of the annual Seersucker Thursday, in which senators come to work in the Southern, pajama-like fabric. He even persuaded Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) to don seersucker this year -- and yesterday, the Yankee senator cast her vote for the man from Pascagoula.
"Now," warned Snowe, "he's saying if I go blond, he'll go punk."