The empty halls of the Longworth House Office Building echo as Oklahoma Rep. J.C. Watts Jr. makes his way -- for one of the last times -- to his office.

With Congress in winter recess, much of the Capitol is deserted, its usual hum of committee hearings, press conferences, floor votes and political maneuvering replaced by an unnatural, almost melancholy stillness.

Watts cuts through the gloom in shiny black cowboy boots and a yellow tie that matches his sunny disposition. He's here to tie up loose ends. To pack up. Move on. Bring his high-profile, frustrating years as the country's sole black Republican congressman to an end.

"I don't know where anything is," Watts says with a chuckle as he enters the shambles that was his work space as chairman of the House Republican Conference. "I came here last night, and it looked like a ghost town."

The bookshelves are empty, the University of Oklahoma banners in storage, the mementos long gone. Most of what remains is covered in bubble wrap. A sculpture of an American eagle that once proudly supervised the room is now pushed, face first, against a bare white wall. Two elephants -- one black and one white -- stare each other down on Watts's desk.

"The most important things are still here," the 45-year-old lawmaker jokes with his press secretary, Kyle Downey. "I got a place to sit," Watts says, patting his black "The most important things are still here," the 45-year-old lawmaker jokes with his press secretary, Kyle Downey. "I got a place to sit," Watts says, patting his black leather chair. "A place to write," he says rapping his desk. "A place to watch ESPN," he laughs, rubbing his TV with his palm. Downey assures his boss, a former star quarterback at Oklahoma, that they fought to keep the cable wired until the very end.

Soon the 108th Congress will be sworn in, and the desk, chair and cable connection will be assigned to someone else.

Watts is ready. Despite being a star within the GOP and holding a coveted leadership position for four years, he was always a solitary figure on Capitol Hill. More outsider than insider, unwilling or unable to master the give and take of building alliances and wielding power.

When he announced his retirement in July, he was fed up, though he didn't come out and say so. Watts has never been one for introspection. And his years as a political lightning rod -- hammered by both liberal black Democrats and conservative white Republicans for not following the company line -- have only made him more cautious and circumspect.

But emotions have a way of spilling out, and, as Watts talks, it becomes clear that a great deal of hurt and anger churn beneath his genial, upbeat veneer.

The topic is golf wunderkind Tiger Woods, under tremendous pressure to boycott the Masters golf tournament because Augusta National Golf Club has no female members.

"Look at what they're doing to Tiger Woods," Watts fumes. "There's no other golfer in American today being asked to do what Tiger is. Being singled out to say, "You have to act a certain way. You are being held to a different standard than the rest of your colleagues on the PGA Tour.' Tiger's being asked to do something that his association isn't being asked to do! If you're going to ask somebody to boycott the Masters, why not ask the PGA to pull their certification?"

Watts's voice rises in outrage. "It's totally unfair. They're singling him out, not because he's a great golfer. They're singling him out because he's black . . . I feel like I know exactly what Tiger's going through right now. I suspect I could tell Tiger some stories about my experiences, and he'd say, "Me, too.' "

He pounds the table for emphasis. He's endured all sorts of indignities trying to build bridges between blacks and Republicans -- efforts that often left him isolated from both groups. His staffers look at him, perhaps afraid that in these closing days he's going to say what he truly feels, really let go about what his eight years in Washington were like.

He doesn't. By the afternoon, in fact, Watts is standing before television cameras to defend a far different target of racial crossfire than Tiger Woods: Mississippi Sen. Trent Lott. The Senate's incoming majority leader has been hit with a storm of criticism for praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 presidential campaign at Thurmond's 100th birthday party. Since Thurmond ran as a Dixiecrat defender of segregation, plenty of people consider Lott's remarks an outrageous endorsement of the days of Jim Crow and racial oppression. He's being slammed not only by liberal Democrats like Al Gore, Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, but by the conservative Wall Street Journal editorial page and the Family Research Council.

Watts initially sees the controversy as a cynical Washington game, one that trivializes the issue of race by focusing on some ill-conceived remarks at a banquet rather than on larger matters of economic inequity and failing schools. For an hour he tells one reporter after another that he has worked closely with Lott and never seen any evidence of racism. Lott has assured him, Watts says, that he didn't mean the comments in the way they are being interpreted. Watts believes him, despite Lott's record opposing civil rights legislation, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and affirmative action, and despite his willingness to speak to segregationist groups.

Watts is the man of the hour. Producers and correspondents from Fox News, CNN, ABC, CBS and NBC queue up to get their sound bites.

"Isn't the congressman concerned about being labeled an Uncle Tom?" one reporter asks Downey, who retorts: "And that would be different from the last eight years how?"

From the moment he arrived in Washington, Julius Caesar Watts Jr. has been a political curiosity. Even his late father, Buddy, had trouble figuring out how his son had wound up a Republican. "A black man voting for the Republicans," he was often quoted as saying, "makes about as much sense as a chicken voting for Colonel Sanders."

Such distrust is widespread in the African American community. Despite sporadic efforts by the GOP to woo black voters, Democrats routinely win 90 percent of the African American vote in national elections. And the ranks of elected black Republicans remain pitifully small. Of the 9,040 blacks elected to public office across the country in 2000, only 50 were Republican, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a Washington think tank that studies black political participation.

The conservative fold does include some prominent -- and powerful -- blacks: Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Secretary of State Colin Powell, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice. But they remain rare. And, in the minds of some in the liberal black establishment, suspect.

Watts, the fifth of Buddy and Helen's six children, certainly didn't start out as a conservative. Pretty much everyone he knew in his tiny, hardscrabble hometown of Eufaula, Okla., was a Democrat, including his father, a farmer and Baptist minister who served on the town council, and his uncle Wade, who headed the state chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

The civil rights struggle wasn't something Watts studied in textbooks. It was something he witnessed firsthand when the public schools were being desegregated in rural Oklahoma. The racism was open and debilitating. Once, as a boy, he yelled at a teacher: "You think because we're black that you can treat us like dogs!"

At the University of Oklahoma, Watts became a star quarterback, leading the Sooners to Orange Bowl victories in 1980 and 1981 as the most valuable player in both games. But he wasn't drafted as a quarterback by the National Football League, which, at that time, remained the almost exclusive domain of white quarterbacks. Watts had to settle for the Canadian Football League. After six seasons in Ottawa and Toronto, he wound up back in Oklahoma, where the Republicans began courting him.

Watts, who'd grown up poor, liked the party's message of self-reliance. He liked Don Nickles, the state's Republican senator. He also thought liberal policies had failed to help the black community and that Democrats took the black vote for granted.

When he switched parties in 1989 to run for a seat on the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, it was considered a coup for the GOP. The party had been trying to make inroads with black voters since at least 1978, when Republican National Chairman William Brock hired black consultants to develop a program for minorities and asked Jesse Jackson to come speak to the RNC. The outreach hadn't had much impact.

But GOP leaders were convinced that Watts, a handsome young football hero and a charismatic public speaker, could help the party connect with African American voters and improve its image with suburban white swing voters as well. Republicans embraced him eagerly -- too eagerly, his father and uncle thought.

Though Watts had voted for Michael Dukakis in 1988 and had served as a state regulatory commissioner for less than two years, he was asked to nominate George H.W. Bush for president at the 1992 Republican National Convention.

His election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1994 made Watts the first black Republican congressman from a Southern state in 120 years. Republicans were jubilant and jetted Watts around the country for speeches and fundraisers. His name was perennially bandied about as a possible vice presidential candidate. At the 1996 Republican National Convention, the attention was so overwhelming that he had to have police escorts just to be able to walk across the convention floor. Everybody wanted their picture taken with him. The following year, Watts delivered the GOP's rebuttal to President Clinton's State of the Union speech.

Heady stuff, though it didn't protect him from the sneers of black Democrats. People like Jackson and Sharpton dismissed Watts as a sellout, a GOP poster boy for diversity. Others were offended by his refusal to join the Congressional Black Caucus, which he regarded as a Democratic club that forced its members to march in lockstep.

Watts doesn't pretend that his skin color had nothing to do with his meteoric rise. "The fact is," he acknowledges, "when you're the majority party you have to consider how the head table looks at the banquet. It's just a fact, just a reality in politics." Watts saw himself as a trailblazer, not a token.

"Is it tokenism to say I think more black men should be schoolteachers?" he asks. "No -- I think it matters." In second grade he was one of two black kids to integrate all-white Jefferson Davis Elementary School. From that point on, he didn't see a black teacher until his sophomore year in high school. "That's not symbolism," he insists. "These things are important. I take great pride when I see General Powell giving a briefing. Black kids know where to look to find the wrong kinds of role models."

Being the only black guy in the room wasn't easy, though Watts usually treated it with eye-rolling good humor. When party leaders asked him to appear at welfare reform press conferences, he'd privately remark that since a majority of those on welfare were white, he didn't really see the point in his attendance. But more often than not, he'd show up.

Sometimes in the halls of Congress, a clueless colleague would make a point of introducing him to a black constituent, as if the constituent and Watts had to be long-lost friends, members of some club who might slap-five. Watts would grin and bear it.

Far more damaging were Watts's tangles with House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, his frustration at his lack of clout within the Republican leadership and his growing sense that he wasn't being treated with the same respect as other House leaders.

All of it, say those who know him well, took a psychic toll. His wife, Frankie, had never moved to the capital, preferring to stay in Norman, Okla., with their five children. (Watts also has a sixth child, who was born when he was 17 and was raised by his uncle.) Watts flew back to Oklahoma almost every weekend to see his family. In truth, he was more comfortable there anyway.

A devout Christian and part-time Baptist preacher, Watts doesn't drink, doesn't smoke and doesn't have much of an appetite for the capital's party circuit. He bonded with staffers while watching reruns of his beloved "Andy Griffith Show," but he never developed the kind of close personal ties that give Congress its clubby atmosphere.

"I can see why people might say, "It's not easy to get to know J.C.,' " says Watts, who admits that he doesn't confide in people. "It's one of my weaknesses. I don't open up to people and tell them personal things. It's just not my nature."

Watts had colleagues, but not friends. He was lonely in Washington, says one senior GOP leadership aide: "I mean, J.C. isn't a white guy with black skin. He's a black guy."

Now the black guy is going, leaving Congress bereft of even one elected African American Republican voice for the first time since 1990. It is a worrisome development for a party trying to sell itself as the home of compassionate conservatism. Every bit as damaging, in its own way, as public nostalgia for segregation.

It was a dozen years between the defeat of Sen. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) in 1978 and the election of Rep. Gary Franks (R-Conn.) in 1990; before that, it was 32 years in the wilderness.

"I think for any caucus on any level to be absent the black perspective is a deficiency," says the Rev. DeForest "Buster" Soaries, a black Republican who lost a race against Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) in November.

"There are racial dynamics to everything," he says, and whites can stumble into offensive statements without even realizing it. Sometimes "it gets down to a certain word in a press release that the majority just misses but the minority community picks up on it." Soaries has spent a great deal of time explaining the loaded term "state's rights" to young white Republicans. "They're thinking of a conservative model of a government construct, but if you say it to black people they're thinking George Wallace or Mississippi and those states that wanted the right to continue with segregation." Without Watts, Republicans in Congress will have to work hard to to bring non-elected black Republicans into their process, Soaries says.

Jim Dyke, a spokesman for the RNC, says that Chairman Marc Racicot is doing just that. "He is adamant about these outreach efforts," says Dyke, who points out that the party holds regular events like one in Charlotte, N.C., last August featuring second-tier black Bush administration officials. And while November didn't prove fruitful for either Soaries or Las Vegas City Councilwoman Lynette Boggs McDonald -- a black Republican who lost her bid to unseat Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.) -- Dyke points out that other African American Republicans won, including Maryland Lt.-Gov.-elect Michael Steele.

"As far as the farm team goes," McDonald says, "it's stronger than it's ever been."

Democrats, of course, don't buy it. They've long questioned the sincerity of Republican efforts to win over black voters, labeling the outreach all talk and no action. They point out that the vice chair of the RNC's New Majority Council, launched with great fanfare several years ago to court black voters, resigned in 2000, saying that the RNC didn't stand for more than "the oratory of inclusion."

Soaries reports that "some Republicans were a little nervous because of my potential appeal to black voters, because if black voters turned out in large numbers for me, many Republicans were afraid that would help other Democrats in other races." He was stunned when some Republican officials urged him to not campaign in black areas.

Watts, too, recalls that before his 1990 race for Oklahoma corporation commissioner, a prominent state Republican predicted that Watts would be a disaster for the rest of the GOP ticket. Blacks, the Republican reasoned, would turn out in huge numbers for Watts, but vote Democratic for every other office.

Watts considers this a "sick, pathetic theory," but it continues to hold sway with some Republicans, and he acknowledges that it may be part of the reason the party hasn't made minority outreach a higher priority. The lack of strong commitment exasperates Watts. Republican Strom Thurmond, Watts points out, won 22 percent of the black vote in his last Senate race in South Carolina. If a former segregationist can do that in the South, Watts argues, there's no reason why the national GOP can't do the same.

There are other cracks in the black Democratic fortress, Watts adds. In a poll released by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in October, 63 percent of blacks identified themselves as Democrats, down from 74 percent two years ago. The number of blacks who identified themselves as Republicans grew from 4 percent to 10 percent. And for the first time, Colin Powell scored a higher approval rating on civil rights than Jesse Jackson.

But David Bositis, a senior researcher for the think tank, doesn't believe any of this has translated into more black votes for the Republican Party: "It's just not there. The fact is George Bush got the lowest percentage of the black vote of any Republican since Goldwater."

If Watts's mission was to build bridges between blacks and Republicans, he has failed, Bositis says. "The party hasn't changed. There's some moves within the party to change, but it hasn't changed. And Trent Lott's a perfect example of it."

Watts's real legacy wasn't making the GOP more attractive to blacks, Bositis says. It was keeping the party from making itself less attractive.

In 1996, the revolution that had swept Republicans to power in the House was in full swing, and conservatives were on a tear. With most of the "Contract With America" already passed into law, they set their sights on dismantling affirmative action.

Franks, the only other black Republican in Congress, and Rep. Charles Canady of Florida introduced a bill to eliminate racial preferences designed to make up for past discrimination against minorities. They called the proposed legislation the Civil Rights Act of 1996. It was a hot issue. While affirmative action had broad and vociferous support within the black community and among many Democrats, many Republicans argued that racial preferences of any kind made it impossible to achieve a colorblind society.

Watts had reservations about affirmative action, too, but absent an alternative, a "Plan B," he decided to oppose Canady and Franks. Just as his family's self-reliance ultimately led him to support welfare reform, Watts's personal experiences led him to conclude that the United States was not yet ready to end affirmative action altogether. Much had changed from his childhood days when Watts had to sit in the balcony at the Eufaula Theater. But racism hadn't disappeared. Driving his Chevy Blazer in Oklahoma one day, Watts had been pulled over by the police six different times. The sole reason, he believed, was his skin color.

Watts worked for weeks to arrange a private meeting with then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich. One afternoon, he finally found himself in Gingrich's office. On the wall hung an immense portrait of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., who appeared to be watching as Watts asked Gingrich to kill the Canady-Franks bill. Doing anything less, Watts said, would send a signal that the GOP believed racism no longer existed in America. Politically, the party hadn't laid the groundwork for such a move, Watts argued. And what were the Republicans proposing other than just ending affirmative action?

"Look, in principle, I don't agree with affirmative action," Watts said. "But in practice, we still don't have a level playing field." It was an emotional issue for Watts. "I don't know, Newt, I'm thinking with my heart here, not my head."

Gingrich listened, then leaned forward and touched Watts's arm. "That's why I like having you around, J.C.," he said. "Don't ever stop listening to your heart. I need your heart."

Gingrich told Franks to pull his bill.

But the next year, Canady continued his crusade without Franks, who had been defeated at the polls. Canady and the other backers of the bill knew they needed Watts's support to make their case that race was no longer an issue in America -- an irony not lost on the party's only black congressman.

They brought in Ward Connerly, a conservative African American for whom ending racial preferences had become a raison d'etre, to try to persuade Watts. The meeting got a bit tense.

"Affirmative action isn't the problem," Watts remembers telling Connerly. "Lousy education for black kids is the problem. Until you fix these schools don't talk to me about equal opportunity."

This time, though, the bill seemed headed for a vote on the House floor. Then something surprising happened: When the House Judiciary Committee took up the bill, eight Republicans didn't show up and four Republicans moved to kill the bill. Watts strongly suspects Gingrich was at work behind the scenes.

The party of Lincoln had, in effect, endorsed the need for affirmative action -- or least acknowledged that America had yet to reach its colorblind promise. And J.C. Watts's voice had been heard.

Watts ran for chairman of the House Republican Conference in 1998, a time of tremendous turmoil on Capitol Hill. President Clinton was being impeached, and Gingrich had survived a coup attempt by fellow Republicans.

The Republicans desperately needed to soften their strident image, and, as conference chair, Watts would handle communications for the team. Calm, affable and compassionate, he was able to take down conference Chairman John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio who'd been one of the participants in the failed coup.

On his 41st birthday, Watts became the fourth-ranking Republican in the House, putting him on track for even bigger things. But he soon found himself at odds with one of the Hill's most formidable political pit bulls: Tom DeLay.

A former pest exterminator from Texas nicknamed "the Hammer," DeLay didn't have much use for anyone who wasn't part of his bare-knuckles, vote-gathering machine. And Watts wasn't.

"Have you ever seen the movie "A Few Good Men'?" Watts asks as he ruminates about DeLay and the whip's frequent run-ins with the media. At the film's climax, a young lieutenant played by Tom Cruise needles Jack Nicholson's Col. Nathan Jessup into his courtroom confession. "When Colonel Jessup was on the stand down in the stretch there, and Cruise knew he was going to convict him? The reason he knew he would convict him is, he knew Jessup had too much pride to lie. He said, "Did you order the Code Red?' and Jessup said, "You're damn right I ordered the Code Red!' "

Watts smiles, letting the analogy hang there. It's an interesting comparison, considering the villainous Nicholson character is a man who took the Marine Corps code to extremes.

"Tom's a very proud conservative," Watts observes. "He knows one way, he's very hard-charging."

And in 1999, it was clear that DeLay was charging right for him. That summer, DeLay's office distributed an array of communications materials to the House Republican Conference, publicly doing Watts's job for him. Then, in December, conservative syndicated columnist Robert Novak wrote that "dissatisfaction" with Watts as conference chair was "being voiced by his congressional colleagues, including other members of the party leadership."

Watts, who considered resigning or retiring then, says the criticism of his performance was unfair. Elected conference chairman in November 1998, "I didn't get a staff and budget until the middle of March," Watts says. "And everybody was saying, "Oh, he's gotten off to a rocky start,' but I didn't have the ability to do the job I was elected to do."

He was used to the Uncle Tom broadsides from the Jacksons and Sharptons of the world. But public sniping from "other members of the party leadership," as Novak put it, that was too much. "There was, I am convinced, an orchestrated effort to cause me problems and to keep me from doing my job," Watts says.

DeLay's office didn't return numerous phone calls to comment for this article. But a Republican source describes DeLay's thinking this way: "Tom's very frustrated when the message doesn't get out. Tom wants the whole team to work together, and he wants the message part to work . . . "Just do the job. If you're going to do the job, great. If you're not and you want help, we're here to help. If you're not and you don't want help, then we're going to do the job.' "

Watts eventually appealed to House Speaker Dennis Hastert for support and got it, but he remained frustrated. Some came to view him as petulant. He "threatened to quit leadership half a dozen times that I know of," one Republican says. "He's very high maintenance."

It took a long time for Watts to come to terms with how betrayed he felt. He didn't understand, at first, "the dynamics of the leadership table, the challenges, even some games being played at that time, some turf grabbing," Watts says. "I was naive in thinking that, "Gosh, we all wear the same colored jersey, we're all going to be one big happy family and we're all going to work as a team for the cause.'

"Being at the leadership table is often like the company that keeps two sets of books, one public set of books and one private set of books, and I just never got into that and never wanted to get into it."

Even so, late in 2001, when House Majority Leader Dick Armey announced he would retire at the end of 2002, Watts considered running for Armey's leadership job. His opponent would be Tom DeLay. Watts asked some of his colleagues to "keep their powder dry" while he took a couple of months to contemplate a run. It was a naive request. While Watts was mulling his future, DeLay began buttonholing colleagues. Though the election was still months away, DeLay quickly nailed down enough votes to assure victory. The Hammer would be the next majority leader.

For months last year, the Pentagon had been considering killing the $11 billion Crusader artillery program, which Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld considered a Cold War relic not worthy of 21st-century warfare. Watts was one of its principal defenders: The weapon system was to be partially assembled in Elgin, Okla., and used for training at Fort Sill, both of which lie in Watts's district.

Generally the pet projects of congressional leaders are sacrosanct. But President Bush made it clear that he would veto any defense appropriations bill that continued funding the Crusader.

Watts didn't seem to have much clout with the Bush administration, despite having been one of Bush's earliest supporters. He couldn't even get the administration to return his phone calls.

"I had been trying to call Don Rumsfeld for probably six weeks," Watts recalls. "And finally, after about a month, I got a call back from [Deputy Defense Secretary Paul] Wolfowitz." He told Watts that the Pentagon was studying the issue, and things could go either way. "We may end up canceling the program," Wolfowitz told Watts in late April, "but, you know, we may end up building more."

On the morning of May 8, Watts received call after call from people who'd heard that Rumsfeld was announcing the program's demise at 2 p.m. No one from the administration called. News of the program's imminent death appeared on the Associated Press wire. Still no call.

Finally, at around noon, Wolfowitz phoned to give Watts the news everyone already knew. Watts was furious. He told Wolfowitz and eventually Rumsfeld that the way the administration had treated him was "indecent and totally unprofessional."

"Such a thing, it gnaws at you," says one of Watts's closest allies, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.). "You think, "My gosh, I'm an active supporter of the president, the fourth-ranking Republican in the House. And more than that: I'm the only African American Republican in Congress and, as such, am asked to do so much for my party -- to go around the country and raise money. And they don't even give me the courtesy of a heads-up?' It's gross."

When Bush came to speak to the 223-member House Republican Conference the following week, its chairman didn't show up. Everyone knew why Watts had stiffed the president. He felt he hadn't been treated with the same respect another member of the House leadership would have received. "I doubt it would have happened to anybody in the top three," Watts says, still bristling at the memory.

But beyond the slight -- which administration officials privately acknowledge was an unintended screw-up -- lies something more telling about Watts: his inability, or unwillingness, to wheel and deal. In Washington, that's how power bases are built, careers propelled and Crusaders saved.

Many people involved were surprised by his feeble response to the attack on the Crusader. Why hadn't Watts tried to work a deal with leadership and appropriators? they asked. Why hadn't he cozied up to members of the House Armed Services Committee or rallied a team to back him on this? Where was his coalition?

"He has absolutely no interest in doing those things," says a Republican who knows Watts well. "It's yucky kind of work in his mind."

"He's not one of the old, traditional guys who go around slapping backs, the good ol' boys," agrees one of his biggest Democratic fans, Rep. John Lewis (Ga.). "That's not his style."

Watts doesn't disagree with the assessment that he's no wheeler-dealer. His straightforwardness, he maintains, has "been my strength." But he acknowledges that he doesn't "ask people for things very well. I don't like feeling like I owe people something."

Even before the Crusader mess, Watts had been weighing whether his life on the Hill and its accompanying frustrations were worth the time away from Frankie and the kids, three of whom are still living at home. It was time, Watts decided, to stop shuttling between Oklahoma and Washington.

Top Republicans, including Bush, Hastert and Vice President Cheney, took turns trying to talk Watts into staying. They were joined by several black Democrats, who'd come to appreciate having Watts on the opposite side of the aisle.

"I hate to see him go," said South Carolina Rep. James Clyburn. "J.C. is someone who really has been quietly but very forcefully doing a lot of good."

Civil rights legend Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat to a white man on an Alabama bus in 1955, also wrote to Watts, asking him to reconsider his decision. "If you can," she said in her letter, "please remain as a pioneer on the Republicans' side until others come to assist you. I am glad I stayed in my seat."

But Watts had made up his mind. He wants to start a public relations firm with offices in both Oklahoma and Washington, to preach and give speeches, to serve on corporate boards. He's already written an autobiography, What Color Is a Conservative? (which blasts the Jackson/Sharpton crowd but contains few harsh words about Republicans who didn't appreciate what he brought to the table). Maybe someday he'll return to politics, Watts says. Just not now.

The Bookers Are Calling.

Everyone, it seems, wants Watts's take on Trent Lott, who is under increasing pressure to resign as Senate Republican leader. Watts agrees to appear on NBC's "Meet the Press" with Tim Russert, the top-rated Sunday morning talk show. By 7:30 a.m. Central time on December 15, he arrives at the University of Oklahoma satellite studio in Norman, where he has done live feeds for years. He'll be paired on the show with his friend, Rep. John Lewis.

Many of Lewis's colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus are calling for Lott's head. Oklahoma's Don Nickles, the second-ranking Senate Republican and a man Watts has admired for two decades, is questioning Lott's viability. Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice have declined to lift a finger on Lott's behalf. President Bush has repudiated Lott's words and done little to come to his aid.

But Watts can't bring himself to join the growing chorus of Lott bashers, though he will eventually suggest that it might be better for Lott to step down. With Russert, he simply acknowledges the damage Lott has done to the GOP's standing with black voters. He says he has talked to Lott several times during the past week, and he has urged the senator to go beyond apologies. "We can't be about symbolism from here on in," Watts tells Russert. "We have to be about substance. That was my advice, and those were my comments to the senator."

It's not a particularly strong defense of Lott, nor is it a particularly strong performance by Watts. There's a noticeable weariness in his voice.

When the controversy first broke, Watts fixated on the way Lott was being savaged by liberals and the media. And he identified with him because of it. As the furor has worn on, however, Watts finds himself offended not only by the details of Lott's segregationist-coddling past but also by the posturing of the senator's conservative critics. They are worried, they say, about the impact of Lott's comments on the party's outreach toward African Americans.

What outreach? Watts wonders. For a long time, he says, he has been the only congressional Republican actually doing outreach instead of just talking about it. Outreach? Where have you been for the past eight years? Watts wonders.

Once again, his long-simmering resentment of liberal exploitation of racial issues for political gain is at war with his frustration

at his party's tone-deafness and lip service about inclusion. Watts is trying to straddle

a fault line that Lott has turned into a chasm.

It was there when he entered the House eight years ago. And it is there as he leaves. Now it's someone else's turn to bridge the thorny politics of Capitol Hill, race and Republicanism.

Watts finishes talking to Russert and takes off his mike. He is guest-preaching this morning at a Methodist church about 90 minutes away from Norman -- and light-years away from Washington. The soon-to-be ex-congressman gets into his Blazer and drives away.

Jake Tapper, a political reporter and commentator, lives in New York. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article at 1 p.m. Monday on www.washingtonpost.com/liveonline.