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Behind the Music: The Singing Senators

By Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts
Monday, September 10, 2007

They were the most powerful quartet in Washington: Four GOP lawmakers bound by a love of rockin' out, barbershop-style. Now the Singing Senators are little more than a memory. Learn the story of their rise and fall and rebirth when The Reliable Source goes Behind the Music. With your host, Style politics writer Sridhar Pappu.

Part 1: Bright Beginnings.

It began with "Happy Birthday." That's what brought a handful of Republican senators together in harmony at a 1995 party celebrating fellow Sen. Bob Smith.

How exactly the original lineup -- Trent Lott, John Ashcroft, Jim Jeffords and Larry Craig -- was formed remains shrouded in mystery, and little is known about the decision to exclude Orrin Hatch, at the time the Senate's most successful Christian recording artist. But from that moment, the quartet was unstoppable.

They honed their unique sound in Lott's office before officially debuting in October 1995 at a Young Political Leaders of America meeting. Within months, they were booked on "Today." Things never looked brighter for the band originally called the Vocal Majority. Little did they know those high times wouldn't last.

Coming up: Unimagined success, and betrayal, when "Behind the Music" returns.

Part 2: Glory Days

It was 1997, and the Singing Senators had just recorded their debut album, "Let Freedom Sing." A performance with the Oak Ridge Boys brought down the house in Branson, Mo. Their signature song, "Elvira," was hailed as a lyrical masterpiece.

Larry Craig, in December '97: "It changes the whole character of politics. . . . The act of singing expresses your vulnerability and at the same time is a very humanizing act."

Though Craig was lead vocalist, baritone Ashcroft was the group's undisputed leader, having already done a stint as a recording artist. But he seemed to put his ego and individual success aside for the sake of the group.

Their sound was certainly gaining traction as the Clinton era wore down. In 1998 the four performed at a gala for the Republican National Committee. Life was sweet, with partisan rancor by day smoothed over by sweet harmony at night.

But storm clouds were brewing. There was grumbling that Jeffords sided too much with Senate Democrats. In 2000 Ashcroft lost his reelection bid, forcing him to settle for the post of Bush's attorney general. In 2001, Jeffords, the tenor, left the GOP in a move that shifted the balance of power in the nation's capital.

Suddenly, the Singing Senators were silent.

Jim Jeffords, in June 2001: "I'm disappointed. I know John Ashcroft wants to get together, but the other two seem less than enthusiastic."

The darkest days were yet to come.

Coming up: A stalled solo career, and the comeback.

Part 3: Reunion

By 2001, the former members of the Singing Senators were on a roller coaster ride they could not control.

Without one another, things seemed to fall apart. Ashcroft was mired in Gitmo. Jeffords had gone indie. Lott, the bass, was forced out as Senate minority leader over remarks perceived as supporting segregation. Then, Hurricane Katrina wiped away Lott's home.

Meanwhile, Ashcroft's attempt at a post-S2 career had stalled, as he was repeatedly mocked for his solo patriotic ballad "Let The Eagle Soar."

But by June 12, 2007, all wounds seemed repaired. Craig, Ashcroft and Lott gathered to perform at an Arlington fundraiser for the Congressional Coalition on Adoption Institute. A little older, a little wiser, the Singing Senators blended their voices for "Elvira," just like in the old days, and ended the gig with a rousing encore of "God Bless America."

They were back -- and ready for a return to the spotlight. But only one of them that night knew of the incident at a Minnesota airport barely 24 hours earlier that would once again divide them and change their lives forever.

Coming up: A stall. A wide stance. The death of a dream.

SORRY, YOU'RE NOT ON THE LIST

One in an occasional series of dispatches from parties you should have crashed.

Site: Hirshhorn Museum.

Occasion: Promotional fete for GOOD, an earnest new magazine that aspires to reach "people who give a damn."

Crowd: About 1,400 Gen X and Yers, dressed nice but unshowy, from earnest give-a-damn professions (journos, policy wonks, committee staffers, nonprofiters, etc.).

Draw: Music by local-hero DJ Eric Hilton of Thievery Corporation.

Scene: Constantly changing colored lights illuminating the courtyard fountain, groovy touch-screen art displays, a dance floor that was actually full.

Bar: Open -- from 7 until midnight ! Sapporo Light, soymilk White Russians, vodka with Red Bull or Izzi sodas.

Drawback: Long bar lines -- guests took to ordering two at a time and double-fisting.

Pleasant surprise: An unexpected appearance by Thievery's other half, Rob Garza.

Disappointment: GOOD's former associate publisher Al Gore III didn't make it.

Overheard: "I need to do some more networking."

An 'Unidentified Escort' No More

That guy with Nancy Reagan at Michael Deaver's memorial service? The Associated Press photo (which ran in our column Friday) called him "an unidentified escort," but friends immediately recognized Fred Ryan, former Reagan staffer, chairman of the Reagan Foundation and president of Albritton Communications. Ryan was flooded with phone calls and e-mails, many from people he hadn't talked to in years, who teased him about his -- c'mon, who could resist? -- "escort" service. "Somehow, there may be a business opportunity here," he told us.

Starting today, The Reliable Source appears Monday through Friday. Send your tips and comments to reliablesource@washpost.com.

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