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Two From Ole Miss, Hitting It Big

Olemis Trent Lott, bottom row, second from right, was a University of Mississippi cheerleader. (Ole Miss Yearbook)

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  • By Linton Weeks
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 7, 1999; Page C1

    OXFORD, Miss. As Mississippi braced for an ice storm a few days before Christmas, images of its national representatives flickered on TV screens between weather bulletins. On this channel was Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, black-haired and bellicose, insisting on a Senate impeachment trial. On that channel, Sen. Thad Cochran, the silver-maned proponent of moderation, was suggesting that there might be an alternative.

    The two leaders come from a shared place and past from which they draw sustenance and strength. Both men and many other Mississippi-bred power brokers are members of a brotherhood, a statewide network of money and influence that began at the University of Mississippi in the late 1950s and '60s. They are key decision makers who will decide the fate of President Clinton and the direction of the nation in the coming year. But Lott (Class of '63) and Cochran (Class of '59) are very different men of different philosophies and personalities. To look at the place and the time that shaped these Mississippians is to shed some reflected light on the new Senate, the old scandal and the strange national crossroads we've come to.

    Mississippi.

    Thad Cochran at Ole Miss
    Thad Cochran, back row, second from right, in this 1963 photo of the University of Mississippi cheerleaders. (Ole Miss Yearbook)
    The word conjures up visions, of one kind or another, in every American mind.

    But for many of the state's leaders, their sense of place was formed at the University of Mississippi, referred to ever since 1897 as Ole Miss. Some were elected to the Associated Student Body the student government association. Others were voted in as editors of the school's publications or as fraternity officers.

    Today they make up the Mississippi Mafia, a loosely formed yet tightknit brotherhood. This is the Good Old Boy network you've always heard about mostly white, mostly middle-aged men.

    At the top of the heap are Trent Lott and Thad Cochran, who earned their political chops as cheerleaders wearing large M's on sweaters and bellowing "Hoddy toddy, gosh almighty, who the hell are we? Hey! Flim, flam, bim, bam, Ole Miss by damn!"

    Trent Lott/Interfraternity Council
    Trent Lott, standing, when he was president of the Interfraternity Council. (Ole Miss Yearbook)
    The son of a school principal and a teacher, Cochran an Eagle Scout and high school valedictorian grew up near Jackson, the state capital. In 1955, he arrived at Ole Miss, where he majored in psychology, minored in political science and was elected president of Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity. He also served as vice president of the student government. After graduation he joined the Navy, then returned to Ole Miss law school. In 1964 he married Rose Clayton (Class of '63), whose father, Hugh Clayton, was a distinguished lawyer and a Democrat. He went into private practice in Jackson.

    Lott came to the university the year Cochran left. After graduating from high school where he was homecoming king and student council president in the coastal town of Pascagoula, Lott entered Ole Miss in 1959. His father was a shipyard worker; his mother, like Cochran's, was a teacher. One family member says that for Lott to join a fraternity, he had to borrow $200 from his grandfather to buy a set of golf clubs. As a junior, Lott ran for president of the student government. It was the last election he ever lost. In 1964 he married Patricia Thompson, the daughter of a Pascagoula dentist. He went to work for Democratic Rep. William Colmer.

    At Square Books, on the historic courthouse square here, owner Richard Howorth says "Oh yeah, Thad was here this morning. He was picking up his daughter who's in graduate school."

    Thad, Trent, everybody knows them in Mississippi. Population, 2.7 million. Density, 12 acres per person. It's that kind of state.

    The Two Mississippis


    James Meredith going to class
    James Meredith goes to his first class at the University of Mississippi on Oct. 1, 1962, escorted by federal marshals. (UPI)
    Near the front door of Square Books is historian David Sansing. He's lived in the state all his 65 years, working first as a Baptist preacher and then as a history professor at Ole Miss. He has written a history of the school that will be published this spring. He's fond of talking about the Other Mississippi.

    The state, he explains, is schizoid, with "two souls, two hearts, two minds. We have the highest rate of illiteracy," he says in a soothing, professorial voice, "and the largest number of Pulitzer Prize winners in literature. We at one time have the scent of magnolias and the smell of burning crosses."

    He's really talking about two Mississippis, historically represented by their men in Washington. There's an old saying in the South about the politicians a state sends to the U.S. Senate one's a statesman and one's a son of a bitch. Over the years, Sansing says, Mississippi has illustrated that worn-out saw in graphic fashion.

    You must remember that all of the politicians belonged to the Democratic Party. Up until 1970 or so, Mississippians joked that the Republicans could hold their state convention in a telephone booth.

    The contrasting traditions were stark in the 1930s with Pat Harrison and Theodore G. Bilbo. Harrison was a well-educated progressive senator who was close to President Roosevelt. Harrison accompanied FDR when the president rode the train down to Tupelo in 1938 to flip on the lights in the region's first Tennessee Valley Authority city.

    Col Rebel, the Ole Miss Mascot
    Col Rebel, the Ole Miss mascot, with the 1996 cheerleaders. (Robert Jordan, University of Mississippi)
    Bilbo, who never graduated from high school, was standing on the outside of that progressive movement of the New Deal. Sansing recalls a 1939 issue of Life magazine that rated Harrison the most efficient, competent and admired senator. And Bilbo the least.

    A wily politician, Bilbo had a talent for identifying himself with downtrodden Mississippians. Sansing imitates Bilbo: "'It's the big shots after me,' he would say. 'I represent the little folks. If you let them get me, they'll get you next.'"

    Another Bilbo bon mot: "Caviar ain't nothing but a fancy word for catfish eggs."

    The two strains reemerged in the late 1940s with John Stennis and James Eastland.Eastland was an outwardly blustering segregationist and the consummate behind-the-scenes dealmaker. "He was proud of this image," Sansing says. "He used it to his advantage."

    Stennis, on the other hand, was an erudite Phi Beta Kappa who attended the University of Virginia and was revered on both sides of the aisle in the Senate. "Stennis's integrity was impeccable," says Sansing. "Nobody would have trusted Jim Eastland beyond the back room."

    On this wintry evening, Sansing's history lesson ends there in the 1960s, at the edge of the Ole Miss campus.

    A Short History Survey


    To understand Mississippi, you have to go to Ole Miss.

    Here, at the Circle, you are standing at the very center of Mississippi's premier state college, founded in 1844. The large brick building with white columns over there is the Lyceum, the only structure from the original campus that is still standing. In the 1860s, the Confederate army used the Lyceum as a hospital; in the 1960s, U.S. marshals enforcing integration used it as a detention center.

    The lovely school is built in concentric circles, ever spiraling outward from the Circle. About a thousand yards to the east, some 700 of the Civil War fallen, both blue and gray, are buried. William Faulkner walked the paths here. So did Willie Morris and John Grisham. History still overwhelms this campus like kudzu. The streets are named Confederate Drive and Magnolia Lane. The students are called Rebels.

    With a nod to Faulkner, Sansing says, "Southerners don't learn about their past, they absorb it."

    Academically, the university is considered a third-tier school. It's ranked 149th among 227 universities in U.S. News & World Report's annual national ranking. Of the 8,600 undergraduates, fewer than half will graduate within six years.

    Sociologically, Ole Miss has a turbulent, tortured past. In response to desegregation efforts, Ole Miss tried to subvert the court's intention by requiring each applicant to the freshman class to obtain letters of recommendation from five alumni. Since all of those were white, it was nigh impossible for black students to get into the college. In 1962, a federal court ruled that James Meredith had to be admitted to Ole Miss two years after he first applied. On Oct. 1, Meredith protected by the marshals climbed the stairs of the Lyceum and registered for classes.

    One more example of the school's uneasy evolution: the Confederate battle flag. Rebel flags were never official symbols at the school. However, the banner a blue X studded with white stars atop a red background began to appear on campus during the early '60s. Students waved the flag at sporting events, flapped it all around fraternity parties, draped it over the rear windows of pickup trucks.

    Not until September 1997 did the student senate pass a resolution calling for students to disassociate themselves from the flag. Since that referendum "the flag has all but disappeared," says Sansing. But "the issue was so detrimental to the public perception."

    In the past, the school's racist recalcitrance prevented it from attracting some top-notch faculty and recruiting some star athletes. The mascot is still a Confederate character dubbed Colonel Rebel. And the sacrosanct name itself, Ole Miss, rubs many people the wrong way. In the antebellum South, Ole Miss was the slaves' term for the mistress of the plantation.

    Pointing to these shortcomings and others, Ethnic News Watch magazine concluded in a 1998 article that "the school is so academically inferior that perhaps highly qualified blacks shouldn't even bother to apply."

    There is, of course, a third Mississippi. About one-third of the state's population is black.

    Gary Anderson, a 1978 graduate and an African American, is a mortgage banker in Jackson and a member of the alumni association's executive committee. "People in my class," recalls Anderson, "did not leave the university with a warm and fuzzy feeling. You felt like you were an island, with nobody seeking you out or wanting you to play any kind of responsible role."

    The school, Anderson says, is changing. So is the attitude of the Good Old Boys. Ole Miss graduates of all colors have a leg up on other job seekers these days. "The network of Ole Miss alums throughout the state," says Anderson, "has been beneficial for all students who attended the university."

    Leading the Cheers


    In the days of Lott and Cochran, the Good Old Boy network was intimate and insular.

    Guy Hovis (Class of '61) looks back on that time with great affection. As state director for Lott in Mississippi, Hovis, ever-smiling with his bouffed black hair, looks like a singer on "The Lawrence Welk Show," which he was. He was also elected to be a varsity cheerleader with his classmate and friend Trent Lott.

    But in that era, being a cheerleader wasn't just about cartwheels and pompoms. A cheerleader was a high-profile, well-regarded campus celebrity. Hovis says it was the next best thing to being a football star.

    "We had to make little talks at suppertime," recalls Amy Permenter McMahan (Class of '62), a Jackson interior decorator, who was a cheerleader with Hovis and Lott. "We would go to each fraternity and sorority house to say a few words about why we should be elected."

    Besides being cheerleaders, Hovis and Lott sang together in a barbershop quartet called the Chancellors. One year the group performed at a national fraternity convention. "We drove all the way to Pittsburgh," Hovis reminisces. "We'd never been that far north."

    Hovis's face lights up. "That was the last of those wonderful days before the Vietnam War," Hovis says while sitting at his desk, surrounded by photos and mementos. "Before the country got turned upside down. We had wonderful years of the ignorance-is-bliss kind. We were kind of living in the '50s."

    A Circle of Rebels


    Like the concentric circles of the campus, the Rebel influence ripples out and out and out. Besides Lott and Cochran, the Ole Miss network today includes:

    Haley Barbour (Class of '73), a Washington lobbyist and former chairman of the Republican National Committee. His law firm, which represents Microsoft and a handful of large tobacco companies, is crawling with erstwhile Rebels.

    State Treasurer Marshall Bennett (Class of '65), an Ole Miss cheerleader in the early 1960s. As a senior he was editor of the annual and a senator in the Associated Student Body.

    Richard "Dicky" Scruggs (Class of '67), a Pascagoula lawyer who is one of Barbour's best friends. Scruggs, ironically, was the lead litigator in Mississippi's suit against the big tobacco companies and earned tens of millions of dollars in the settlement. Scruggs is also Lott's brother-in-law.

    Robert Khayat (Class of '61), the chancellor at Ole Miss today and a former football player for the Ole Miss Rebels and the Washington Redskins. While trying to open up the university to new blood and traditions, he's relying on the network for big bucks. Scruggs has donated some $25 million to the college of liberal arts. In the spring, Ole Miss will break ground on the Trent Lott Leadership Institute. Barbour has been enlisted to raise money for the effort.

    Mike Moore (Class of '74). Mississippi's attorney general, who led many state attorneys general in a nationwide war against the tobacco companies that resulted in a proposed settlement in 1997.

    A couple of the network members Lt. Gov. Ronnie Musgrove (Class of '78) and Charlie Williams (Class of '69) are running for governor this year. Kirk Fordice, the first Republican governor in Mississippi since 1974, leaves office in 2000. Barbour is supporting Williams, who was his college roommate. Mike Moore, who dropped out of the race yesterday, had a lot of Ole Miss support also. He wasn't in a fraternity, says Marshall Bennett, "but he's in the network."

    No Love Lost


    The two political Mississippis became as muddy as flood waters in the wake of the 1960s.

    Some of the young white Democrats in Mississippi, says veteran Mississippi journalist Bill Minor, "saw the writing on the wall. The Democratic Party was becoming the party of blacks. The whites switched."

    In 1972, Lott and Cochran were sent to the House of Representatives as Republicans. Cochran served three terms in the House, then ran successfully for the Senate when Eastland retired. When Colmer retired, Lott was elected to his seat. In his freshman term, Lott was the youngest member of the House Judiciary Committee that voted on the fate of President Nixon. In 1988, Lott shifted to the Senate and the two Ole Miss alums have become powerful leaders there. They have also had several run-ins over the years.

    When Eastland said he wasn't going to run in 1978, Cochran beat Lott to the punch and announced his candidacy. The two then fought for control of the state Republican Party and over a judge's appointment to the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals during the Reagan years.

    "Lott had the keys to the back door of the Reagan White House," says Minor.

    With Reagan's blessing, the younger Rep. Lott not Sen. Cochran led Mississippi's Republican delegation to the 1984 convention in Dallas. In 1994, Lott leapfrogged over several colleagues, including Cochran, to become the Senate whip. Lott also ran against his senior senator for majority leader in 1996.

    "That's evidence of his enthusiasm," says Bennett.

    Several people interviewed for this story used the same phrase to describe the Lott-Cochran relationship: There is no love lost between them.

    To many political observers, the two sides of Mississippi live in subtle, sometimes silent ways, in Lott and Cochran.

    "There is a difference in personalities," says Bennett. "Trent has been a more enthusiastic advocate of party politics. Thad has been more of a scholar, a coalition builder.

    "They both get elected with Democratic votes," Bennett points out. "Thirty-four percent of Mississippi voters are Republicans, 38 to 40 percent are Democrats, and the rest are independents."

    "They were both elected during the anti-McGovern sentiment of 1972," says former Mississippi governor William Winter, who ran unsuccessfully against Cochran for the Senate in 1984. "That's about all they have in common. They have constantly been at odds."

    Cochran, says Winter, is the more moderate of the two.

    "Cochran is intellectual," says Minor. "Lott is visceral."

    He points to a couple of recent incidents involving Lott. In mid-December, the senator publicly questioned the timing of Clinton's military action against Iraq. Also news stories circulated about Lott's contacts with a white supremacist group six years ago. Lottbackpedaled on his criticism of Clinton and renounced the racist organization.

    As Lott settles into his leadership role, he is looking more conciliatory and less confrontational.

    Many Mississippi political observers say however that looks can be deceiving. Cochran, they point out, is predictable. Lott is not.

    Change Underway


    Like its famous river, Mississippi is moving.

    The Almanac of American Politics reports that per capita income in the state was 36 percent of the national average in 1940, but 73 percent in 1995. A marked improvement, especially in light of the fact that Mississippi has the nation's lowest cost of living.

    Jackson is the world headquarters of WorldCom, which acquired MCI in 1997 and became the second-largest long distance company in the country.

    The state's economy is being stoked by riverboat gambling which was appoved in 1989. Per capita gambling revenue in 1996 $697 was second in the nation behind Nevada.

    Ole Miss is morphing. Today, 22 percent of the freshman class is black. The editor of the campus's daily newspaper is an African American woman. "Visitors to the Ole Miss campus in 1999 find a vibrant, diverse, energetic and open community," says Khayat.

    Politics are changing, too. More and more black Mississippians are getting involved in government on the local level and the Good Old Boys are learning to adjust. In 1997, Jackson elected its first black mayor.

    As the U.S. Senate braces for an ice storm of its own, the lessons of the two Mississippis seem particularly relevant. In the next few days and weeks, the august body will be making profound decisions. The nation will be watching to see which Mississippi it follows.


    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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