"Kay Bailey Hutchison on Line 2."
"Hello? Hello? Kay?"
Sen. Trent Lott is pushing buttons. "Hello? Kay? Kay?" he yells, and then turns to an aide. "Hey, I don't hear anything." He puts the phone down, then picks it back up. He does this three times.
"We'll get her back," an aide assures Lott as the senator wheels around in response to a vibrating moan coming from a table behind the desk in his Senate office. Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is sending the Senate minority leader a message on his BlackBerry.
Lott (R-Miss.) doesn't usually check his BlackBerry. But he's being extra vigilant because it's Election Day, a day when information supplants influence as Washington's most cherished commodity. "What'ya hear? What'ya hear?" Lott keeps asking all morning, just like the rest of us. He gets scraps, but for much of the day he doesn't really know how the day is going -- and whether he'll wake up today as Senate majority leader. Election days are cruel exercises for those accustomed to control. And Lott is a stickler for order, ritual and precision -- a preference underscored by his perfect hair and spotless desk.
But there's nothing Lott can do to help himself now. Nothing besides wait, fidget, tap his ring on his desk, doodle pentagon-shaped thingies on a pad of stationery and watch nine feeds of TV election coverage simultaneously in his office.
Lott is just off the phone with Andy Card, the White House chief of staff. They exchange "What'ya hears?" and reach a consensus that, sure enough, they're both feeling "upbeat." Card says that he just spoke to the president in Crawford, Tex., and that the president, too, was feeling upbeat. Or, in Card's words, "pumped."
This is how everyone feels right about now, Democrats and Republicans alike. Or that's how they say they feel. No one in recorded political history has said, in an Election Day interview, that they feel "downbeat." Not at 11:30 a.m.
"He didn't sleep well last night," says Lott's wife, Tricia. Trent Lott got to bed in his Capitol Hill rowhouse at 11 p.m. Monday. He tossed and turned and was out of bed by 6 a.m. The phone rang at 7:30. He figured it was the president, except that the president usually calls at 7:20. It was his 4-year-old grandson, Trent Lott III, who recited the Pledge of Allegiance "with perfect enunciation" for his grandfather.
Lott felt better immediately. He ate a bowl of cereal (which he identifies as "Special K 19 or something All Bran"), two strips of bacon, an apple and three cups of Maxwell House instant coffee. He read newspapers and overnight tracking polls. He went to his office and assembled a list of phone numbers for every Republican Senate candidate -- headquarters, cell and home phone numbers -- as well as Republican congressional candidates in Mississippi. He talked by phone to Sens. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), Michael DeWine (R-Ohio) and John Ensign (R-Nev.), as well as the Senate chaplain. Everyone is reported "upbeat."
The BlackBerry appears to unnerve Lott. When it vibrates, he picks it up and peers at its backside before realizing his error and flipping it around. "He's going crazy with these BlackBerry things," Lott is saying of Frist, the head of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. Lott squints through his wire-rim glasses to read Frist's message on the tiny screen. Frist's message is, essentially, for Lott to remember to keep his BlackBerry on.
"Here comes another one," Lott says, squinting again. Now, Frist is sending a special Election Day prayer.
"It's Senator Hutchison again," Lott's secretary says.
"Kay? Kay? . . . Hello, Kay. Sorry about before."
"How you feel? Texas gonna be okay? Good. Good. Good. Well, we feel pretty good, too. I just talked to Andy Card and he says that the president is pumped." Lott stops talking and furiously draws more house-shaped pentagons.
"Good in Colorado. Four states could go either way. Good in Missouri, Arkansas not so good."
"Yep, yep. Right, right. Good, good. Awright, awright."
"Okay, Kay, I'll see you on Tuesday." He hangs up the phone and looks up.
This is Trent Lott's 15th Election Day since he came to Congress in 1972. He's been on the ballot himself in 11 of these elections, eight in the House and three in the Senate. He decided to stay in Washington this year because, he says, it's easier to reach and be reached by people. At several points throughout the day, Lott characterizes his state of mind as "not nervous anticipation. More like studied anticipation."
But Tricia Lott, in so many words, says her husband can be a nervous wreck on Election Day. He's not a yeller or a pacer. "It's more like he gets quiet," she says. "If things aren't going right, he gets a kind of look." If you ask a question, you don't get an answer, she says. He goes into a state that people close to Lott call "The Zone."
Lott gets his first exit polls at 1:50 p.m., after a lunch of pork chops and mashed potatoes in the Dirksen building cafeteria. Compared with Election Day 2000, Lott's vibes are pretty good today -- for as much as Trent Lott has "vibes." Lott entered his "zone" two years ago when Republicans lost five seats, leaving the Senate in a 50-50 tie. "I knew that situation in Missouri was very depressing," Lott recalls, referring to the death of the Democratic candidate, Gov. Mel Carnahan, in a plane crash a few days before the election. Carnahan was replaced on the ballot by his widow, Jean Carnahan, who upset incumbent John Ashcroft. "I talked to Ashcroft two or three times, and he said it was not good," Lott says. "And I talked to him around 9 and he said, 'They're stealing it from me right now.' "
Yesterday, Lott had no similar discussions, as Republican prospects looked better and better as the day wore on. He does interviews with WTOP radio, Sean Hannity, Time and Reuters. He meets with his chief of staff to discuss hiring. Two cigars lie on his desk in parallel. They are a gift from a buddy, special cigars that Lott says "may or may not be cheap," because, he allows, he knows little about cigars. He does a double take and looks up at a huge TV in his office that has a nine-way screen -- like a "Hollywood Squares" board with each box showing a different offering of election coverage.
He wonders why exit polls from North Carolina show Republican Elizabeth Dole even with Democrat Erskine Bowles. Lott said he would have made a bigger issue of Bowles's role as White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration. But Dole didn't say much about that, Lott says. "She ran a very ladylike campaign," he says at noon, predicting that Dole would win by four or five percentage points.
"I can't believe Elizabeth Dole won't win that race," Lott says to a small group of reporters at 5:30 p.m. He is in the Mansfield Room, near his office. He has just finished an interview with MSNBC, in which he declared the just-completed Senate session to be "dysfunctional" and himself "upbeat."
Afterward, as Lott heads upstairs for an interview with Larry King on CNN, word comes that Voter News Service, used by many media outlets, has announced that its exit polling data isn't reliable.
As Lott stands in a hallway outside his office, he struggles to remove an earphone and microphone setup that is bothering him. "We'll put this back in when we get to the Larry King thing," he says. But then he gets tangled up in the wiring. An aide picks at Lott's belt buckle and under his jacket while the Senate minority leader leans backward and reaches behind his back. But he can't free himself. It's a fitting symbol of the helpless state of suspension that afflicts the city on Election Day. He scowls for several seconds.
Until, finally, he is free, and he continues down the hallway. "It's going to be a long night," Lott says, unsmiling. He begins it in The Zone.
Trent and Tricia Lott eat dinner and watch returns at the White House with the president and Laura Bush and other Republican leaders and their spouses. Tricia Lott describes the menu as "meat, vegetables and potatoes" to go with a desert of Southern layer cake with ice cream. (The vegetables might have included carrots and beans, she says, but she wasn't focusing on the food.)
By 9:30 p.m., they are back in Lott's Capitol Hill office, and the senator calls Dole in North Carolina and John Sununu in New Hampshire, both of whom have been declared winners by the networks.
"It's looking pretty good, pretty good," Lott says as he emerges from his office at 10:20. He walks down the hall, trailed by six reporters.
Outside in the rain, the Lotts wait under a canopy while their Cadillac is retrieved to take them on the short drive back to their rowhouse. Trent Lott allows for a small, satisfied grin. He is hardly ebullient, but not in The Zone, either. It's been a long day, he says, and reiterates that it could be a long night. He has interviews scheduled on the network morning shows, but sleep is in no one's immediate plans, Tricia Lott says. "We've got to stay up and see how this ends."