The Return of Trent Lott

Why his colleagues brought him back from the dead.

Newly elected Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott

Once again in the U.S. Senate, the man with the better hair has won. Wednesday, Trent Lott beat Lamar Alexander by a single vote to become minority whip, the No. 2 spot in the Republican Senate leadership. The victory was an extraordinary comeback for the Mississippi lawmaker who four years ago was forced out as majority leader after praising former segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond. Lott’s cascade of apologies, including on BET, didn’t save him then. But with time, politicians can sometimes live down boneheaded statements—which should come as good news to George Allen and John Kerry.

It’s actually more than the passage of time that has saved Lott. He survives because he has the competence Allen lacks and collegiality Kerry doesn’t have. Lott was in the House for 16 years and has served in the Senate for 18 more. For 10 years he was his party’s official vote counter, first in the House and then the Senate, and it is a role he relishes. A former cheerleader, Lott can throw himself over his target like a heavy coat. Even when he doesn’t need an answer immediately, he greets colleagues with all the arm holding, embraces, and easy laughter that suggest he’ll be coming back later to ask for your vote (or your kidney).

His victory over Alexander, who has been campaigning for the job since he returned to Washington as a senator 18 months ago, suggests Lott still has an aptitude for counting noses and bringing his colleagues around to his point of view. Alexander campaigned as a healer who would reshape the Republican caucus in his image: moderate, sensible, and kind to children. He lost by only one vote, which means Republicans obviously think they need to improve their image in the wake of the disastrous Election Day. In the end, though, the senators appear to have decided that a scuffed-up master tactician is better than a sunny Tennessean with limited experience in the folkways of the Upper House—a description that also fits outgoing Majority Leader Bill Frist, with whom Republicans have been disappointed. They complain that Frist was regularly outmaneuvered by now Majority Leader Harry Reid and lacked the skills necessary to massage the caucus. Lott will also help senators protect their pork, having demonstrated an ability to deliver it regularly to his home state whether in the majority or the minority.

Unlike in the House, where the majority can make the minority hand over its lunch money, Lott and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell will have a lot of power in the Senate, where 60 votes are needed to get anything done. Lott will relish using his tricks and collaborating with his longtime friend McConnell to thwart Democrats. But he may also help pass more legislation than he kills. Lott is a conservative, but he’s also a dealmaker. Three weeks after he took over for Bob Dole in 1996, he summoned his colleagues into the Senate chamber to criticize them at length for refusing to pass laws. He told Democrats and Republicans alike that the Senate had gotten “all balled up here.” In the last days of that session, he surprised Washington by taking the initiative to produce a variety of compromises with the Clinton White House on health-care portability, budget cuts, and welfare.

A few quick achievements would help recast Lott as a competent legislator and bury the blight of his remarks four years ago. When bipartisanship serves his self-interest, Lott can be a Democrat’s best friend, as I once witnessed in 1998. I was covering Bill Clinton’s impeachment trial in the Senate when I followed Lott into a room off of the Senate floor. The Senate had just unanimously voted to approve an antiseptic set of rules for handling evidence in the trial. The body would hear arguments first and only examine the icky evidence and details if necessary. Senate Republicans and Democrats took this vote knowing full well that they’d acquit Clinton without ever getting into the details. It was the outcome then-Majority Leader Lott had been hoping for. The senators had agreed to confect a face-saving way to do their constitutionally mandated duty and hold the trial but avoid the lurid trap that had sullied everyone involved in the House impeachment proceedings.

Lott was looking for Ted Kennedy, with whom he had clashed on everything from raising the minimum wage to health care. The Massachusetts senator had been the co-author of the compromise that the Senate had just approved. Lott found him, and the two men joked about their new friendship.

“How about some crawfish étouffée?” the Mississippian joked after giving Kennedy’s wife a big kiss.

“I want me a po’ boy,” Kennedy said in his best Southern accent, producing loud stage laughter. “This is going to make the health-care bill of rights a piece of cake.”

“Piece of cake,” said Lott. “Let’s go do it now.”

“Yes, and minimum wage,” said Kennedy.

Now, eight years later, Democrats have put raising the minimum wage at the top of their agenda again, and Kennedy and Lott will indeed cooperate on it. That’s the way it works in the Senate. Things come around again in time.