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Lott Trying to Keep Everything in Order

Lott Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. (AP)

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  • By Kevin Merida
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Thursday, January 14, 1999; Page C1

    Trent Lott likes order, neatness, things in their place. So he has developed little routines, one of which is this: When he arrives home from work each evening, he drops his briefcase, heads upstairs to his bedroom and changes into his cotton pajamas. Then he bounds back down the steps to have dinner with his wife, Tricia.

    One day last week it was pork chops, black-eyed peas, new potatoes and small talk. Always small talk.

    "Anybody being mean to you?" she asked.

    "No," he replied, "pretty much normal."

    Like hell it was. But that's the way the majority leader of the United States Senate wished to play it. Pretty much normal. Meanwhile, on his watch a president is facing an impeachment trial for the first time in 131 years, Democrats were yapping at him about fairness, some Republicans were imploring him not to cave, some Republicans were pleading with him to avoid the appearance of partisanship, and some Republicans were mad at him for circulating proposals that they had to read about in the papers. Rep. Henry Hyde was demanding that the House prosecution team be allowed to present its case without restrictions. Democrats were demanding that Lott tell the House Judiciary Committee chairman to butt out of Senate business. Conservative activists were questioning his conservative cojones. Everyone was arguing about whether witnesses should be called and which witnesses should be called and when they should be called and how long they should be interrogated and what they could actually prove that is not already known.

    Lott, a Mississippian with perfectly laid hair and starched shirts he re-presses after getting them back from the cleaners, was finding it difficult to maintain order. At work, he saw nothing but chaos. At home, in his five-room Capitol Hill row house, there were pork chops. And small talk. And order.

    "You talk to the kids today?" he asked Tricia.

    Yep, they called, she told him.

    And after dinner he retrieved his briefcase, headed back upstairs, folded into his reclining chair and read memos and briefing papers from staff and colleagues until 11:30 p.m. when the lights went out. Just like always.


    "I can tell he's under more pressure," says Tricia, who's been busy helping to plan their daughter Tyler's May wedding. "You can just tell. He gets a little quieter. I can't describe it. Maybe I just know him. I just know this is hanging right over his head. He knows he is not going to be able to please all sides. Somebody is going to be mad at him."

    Lott found temporary harmony last Friday in the stately Old Senate Chamber. There, a bipartisan agreement was struck on ground rules for how to begin the trial of William Jefferson Clinton today. But who knows when that harmony will revert to warfare and turn to anarchy? All the Senate really did was postpone the toughest decisions – whether to abort the trial early, whether to take testimony from witnesses – until later this month. As Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) readily concedes: "In this business, everything can blow up at the last minute."

    Lott, whom one friend describes as having "an optimistic streak that makes him wake up in the morning and assume things are going to turn out okay," is feeling the weight of his big leadership moment. At times, he tells friends, it's as though he is on trial himself. Pulled, tugged, dissected.

    "If Trent Lott was a pie, he would be divided into 12 pieces," says Sen. John Breaux (D-La.), a longtime Lott pal. The Lotts and Breauxs once lived in the same neighborhood in Annandale, and the two families are close. "He's been pulled from the inside and pulled from the outside."

    Consider what conservative commentator Armstrong Williams had to say about Lott: "One moment he's saying censure. One moment he's saying quick trial. One moment he's saying no witnesses. One moment he's saying, well, let's wait and see if witnesses add anything. I wish the real Trent Lott would just stand up. What about what Trent Lott believes? Why does he have to be guided by different factions? He needs to stand for something. He needs some backbone. And there are many of us out here who would loan it to him if we thought it would work."

    Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), who has socialized with Lott, explains his leader's problem more delicately. "He is a very gregarious person, almost to a fault. He tends to want everybody to like him."

    As Inhofe sees it, anything short of a full-blown trial with witnesses and evidence is a dereliction of duty. "I think he perceives his job to be one of coalescence. I don't think coalescence is as necessary as he thinks it is."

    Way back in March, before independent counsel Kenneth Starr had completed his investigation, Lott was one of the first Republicans to publicly broach censure as an option for Congress to use in the Clinton case. It was part of his instinct to negotiate a path out of the swamp.

    "I think a good dealmaker sometimes would rather make a bad deal than no deal," Inhofe says. "So we're really of two different temperaments."

    Conservatives have been peeved at him before – like when he joined Clinton to push for ratification of the chemical weapons treaty and like when he spoke out in defense of Air Force pilot Kelly Flinn.

    "The things you have to do to be majority leader are sometimes not flattering to the conservative wing of the party," says a Lott adviser. Randy Tate, head of the Christian Coalition and a former House member, empathizes with Lott's predicament and notes that he has been "a solid friend to the pro-family movement."

    "Nobody runs for office to ever be in this spot," Tate says. "It's not part of your freshman orientation."

    Having said that, Tate adds: "This is the biggest test of his career. This is the kind of thing we're going to read about 100 years from now. It remains to be seen how he will do until the trial gets underway. It's hard to do a pregame analysis before the game begins."

    Waiting to Exhale

    Lott at least has his game face on.

    He has been described by staff, friends and colleagues who have spoken with him privately as "very serious," "highly focused," "not panicky," someone searching for answers, asking lots of questions, someone who understands that his own value as a leader is at stake.

    He has brought onto his staff Mike Wallace, a constitutional lawyer from Mississippi. Wallace once clerked for Chief Justice William Rehnquist, who is presiding over the trial. For several months, Lott has been reading from a thick binder his legal staff keeps clogging with material related to the censure of Andrew Jackson, to the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson and to Watergate, with which he is personally familiar. In 1974, as the youngest member of the House Judiciary Committee, Lott defended President Nixon during the impeachment hearings until he couldn't defend him anymore.

    He has eagerly accepted – though not necessarily followed – the advice of America's political elders. George Bush has called. Gerald Ford has called. Jimmy Carter has called. Bob Dole has called. Howard Baker has called. Every graybeard with a phone has offered counsel. Trent Lott always listens.

    And it's not just the statesmen who have access. Junior senators call him at home, stop by his office, chat him up on the floor. Lott turns no one away. He recently telephoned Sen. Paul Coverdell (R-Ga.) just to ask: "What have you heard? What are your ideas?"

    "I think there is an appreciation of how difficult this is," Coverdell says.

    Sometimes, though, Lott just wants to escape.

    After reading a Sunday Washington Post reconstruction of how Democrats and Republicans forged consensus on trial procedures, he told a friend on Monday that a particular description in the piece – "a man waiting to exhale" – had resonated.

    "Boy, does that ever sum it up," he said.

    When he will actually get to exhale is unclear. Today, the prosecution will lead off the trial with opening arguments, and Lott will have a seat up front in the Senate chamber, one of 100 jurors sitting in judgment. Center stage will belong to Rehnquist and to Henry Hyde's (R-Ill.) House "managers," as they're called. But that doesn't mean Lott will fade back to the periphery. One aide likens his role to that of "a jury foreman," someone whose opinion may matter more than all the others.

    Lott will also be awkwardly juggling the roles of Senate manager and Republican leader. He must concern himself with the institution's integrity and ensure that Clinton's trial doesn't shut down the Senate entirely. But he also carries the burden of protecting the party's image during the proceedings; some Republicans believe it is Lott's responsibility to see to it that the GOP doesn't emerge smelling like a skunk. And so outside the Senate chamber, there will be meetings of different clusters of senators – if not the entire GOP conference – daily.

    "It's nagging for him that he's going through this process," says a Lott adviser, "when he despises Bill Clinton and he wonders why people aren't standing outside of the White House demanding that he leave office. He is a little befuddled by why the politics have turned out the way that they have – why Clinton is up and the Republicans are down."

    For its part, the White House seems unwilling to touch him, with criticism or praise. "The man's got a difficult enough job," says one White House official. "We don't want to make it more difficult" by passing judgment. And yet the White House didn't hesitate to pass judgment on other Lott behavior, most notably last month's quick-draw rebuke of Clinton for launching airstrikes against Iraq. The White House was furious. And after a loud chorus of bipartisan boos, Lott backtracked. His ego and standing were certainly bruised by that episode, but he was perhaps more stung by reports earlier in the month that he had given a speech to and had ties to the Council of Conservative Citizens, a group that many liberals and conservatives alike consider to be racist. He has since renounced the group.

    "He sits in the big chair and expects people to criticize," says Lott spokesman John Czwartacki. "That comes with the territory." Lott and Clinton have a remarkable shared history. Five years apart in age – Lott is older at 57 – they are two politicians from working-class families in the Deep South, who suffered hard-drinking dads, who excelled in school, who avoided the draft, who married well, who lost their races for student body president in college. They both lean toward the politics of pragmatism over ideology. They both count the erratic Dick Morris as a political counselor.

    But their relationship has been uneasy. Lott phoned Clinton on Jan. 6, the day new and returning senators were sworn in, as part of the protocol of informing the president that the Senate was open for business. They briefly talked college football. "He said he was proud of Ole Miss," Lott recounted.

    It was an innocent moment, football fan to football fan, southerner to southerner. With the trial about to get underway, there may not be another moment like that one for quite a while.

    Taking Notes

    It seems ironic now that Trent Lott established the Leader's Lecture Series last year, bringing to the Old Senate Chamber the wisdom of former majority leaders. Mike Mansfield gave the first talk, followed by Howard Baker and then Robert Byrd.

    Baker's talk, likening the job of majority leader to "herding cats," seems particularly relevant now. "It is trying to make 99 independent souls act in concert under rules that encourage polite anarchy and embolden people who find majority rule a dubious proposition at best."

    Baker went back into the 19th century to quote John C. Calhoun on his rival Henry Clay: "I don't like Henry Clay. He is a bad man, an impostor, a creator of wicked schemes. I wouldn't speak to him. But by God, I love him."

    That, in essence, was the true meaning of Senate collegiality. "It is almost impossible to explain that statement to most people, but most senators understand it instinctively and perfectly," Baker said. "Here, in those 28 words, is the secret to leading the United States Senate."

    Lott has been taking notes.

    In the mid-to-late 1950s, when Lyndon Johnson was majority leader, he would have likely resolved any impeachment trial dispute in private meetings with eight or nine senators, says Richard Baker, the Senate historian.

    "There would probably have been some pork barrel promises and some threat of reprisals," Baker says. "But that's a much different Senate."

    "The big difference is you can't strong-arm members," says Breaux. "That wouldn't work today. People would rebel against that."

    "So much of the leader's job today is building consensus," Baker adds, "nudging here and nudging there and working quietly to bring them around, but not with the intense publicity this is taking." With Lott, it's like "the spotlight is on him and you can almost see how the decision is going moment by moment."

    Lott and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) have more comfort in their working relationship than Daschle and Dole had. They have a direct phone line to each other's office. "That line rings an awful lot," Daschle says. They frequently drop by each other's office unannounced. They have worked in such tandem over the last several weeks that they were practically giddy with politeness at their joint news conferences last week.

    Lott: "I want Tom specifically to respond to this, too."

    Daschle: "I agree completely with what Senator Lott has just noted."

    And so on. "I think this is probably the toughest test Trent has had to face as an elected leader," Daschle says. "He not only has to deal with colleagues but deal for the first time with the House in a way that directly affects his colleagues here. . . . I think he has handled it very well."

    The Low-Key Life

    It's a long way from Edd's Drive-in in Pascagoula, Miss., to influencing United States senators on how to consider the impeachment of a president. But that's where Lott finds himself.

    He grew up in the era of the Platters, "Ozzie and Harriet" and button-down shirts – by his own description the greatest time to live in America. He was a second tenor with Boys Quartet in high school, kept singing at Ole Miss (where he also was a cheerleader and frat leader) and continues to sing today with a quartet known as the Singing Senators. That would be John Ashcroft, Larry Craig, Jim Jeffords and Lott as bass. Those fellas are good enough to sing with the Oak Ridge Boys, release a CD and do fund-raising concerts on the GOP circuit.

    "Oh yeah," says Jeffords, "Trent, he's a good singer."

    Lott doesn't go out to restaurants much and hasn't been to a movie since early fall. But he is a devoted follower of the TV drama "JAG." Hardly ever misses it on Tuesday nights.

    If he is sweating the impeachment trial, he is showing no outward sign of it. The staff still knows when he comes into the office by his whistle. He is close to his two children, daughter Tyler and son Chet, and talks to them every day. And he is smitten by a baby grandson, Chester Trent Lott III, whom everyone calls Trent. Staffers sometimes retrieve pictures of young Trent via e-mail, print them out and put them on Lott's desk as a kind of pick-me-up.

    Lott enjoys working in his yard, the little one on Capitol Hill and the big one in Pascagoula, where he spent Christmas raking debris and gathering up oyster shells – damage from Hurricane George.

    On Capitol Hill, his neighbors include Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), Secretary of the Senate Gary Sisco and Sen. Frank Murkowski (R-Alaska), who lives two doors down. Sometimes those two act like little boys. "He and Trent blow leaves down each other's yards," says Tricia Lott.

    And then he'll go into the house and watch football.

    For a man who ascended to the Senate's top leadership post in 1996 with a reputation as an arch-conservative, he has turned out to be less predictable than either party's senators had thought. He has managed at one point or another to please and upset liberals, moderates and conservatives alike with his varied strains of leadership – from practical politics to shoot-from-the-lip politics.

    But if there is any overriding drive, and that may or may not be good news for Clinton this time, it is his passion for order. And so every morning, Trent Lott awakes at 6:30 a.m., heads downstairs in his cotton pajamas and drinks two or three cups of coffee while reading the newspapers. Then he gets dressed and has breakfast.

    "That's pretty much the routine," says Tricia. "Pretty exciting, huh? We're real low-key. You might say pretty much normal."

    © Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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