sam's notes

notes on government, sports and popular culture

Friday, September 09, 2005

 
....My review of Trent Lott's Herding Cats, no matter how politically insignificant it is:

Along with North Carolina’s own Jesse Helms, Trent Lott is the second southern Republican to publish his memoirs. Like Helms’ Here’s Where I Stand, Lott’s Herding Cats: A Life in Politics is drawing notice for addressing sensitive racial issues.

But while race was a subject that hung over Helms’ entire 50-year career in politics, Lott’s 30-year political career was damaged by a single “innocent and thoughtless remark” that set off a firestorm leading to his resignation as Senate majority leader in December 2002.

Just to refresh your memory, Lott uttered these infamous 40 words at a party honoring South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond:

“I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We’re proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn’t have had all these problems over all these years, either.”

That statement angered civil rights activists and many Democrats, who viewed it as an endorsement of Thurmond’s segregationist platform when he ran for president in 1948. Lott maintains he was trying to boost the spirits of the 100-year-old Thurmond, who, we know now, had just turned the calendar on the last year of his life.

The remark was made in front of a large audience and broadcast live on C-SPAN. But as word spread second-hand — mainly though the Internet on liberal blogs, the story began to gain steam.

But the story really took off when former Vice President Al Gore — an old political enemy of Lott’s — criticized him on CNN, saying Lott’s words were “the very definition of a racist comment.”

While Lott characterizes is remark as “innocent and thoughtless,” he also blames the media for treating the incident as a “hanging offense.” Resigning his post would be the only way to return to a normal life.

Lott does have kind words for many of his Republican colleagues who didn’t exactly rush to his defense.

President Bush, who continues to take heat for not reacting quickly enough to difficult situations, finally called Lott several days after he resigned from the leadership post:

“He said he felt bad about rumors that the administration was undermining me, and was proud of how I handled my decision to surrender my office,” Lott writes. “I will always remember my response clearly: ‘Thank you, Mr. President, but the rumors did hurt me and you didn’t help when you could have.’”

Nor does he have kind words for Sen. Bill Frist, who became Senate majority leader following Lott’s resignation.

“I consider Frist’s power grab a personal betrayal,” Lott writes. “When he entered the Senate in 1995, I had taken him under my wing. He was protégé and I helped him get plum assignments and committee positions.”

While the light Lott shines on this political spectacle is interesting, the rest of the memoir is relatively unexciting.

Lott grew up in a working-class family in his native Mississippi.
His father, Chester Lott, scraped out a living as a pipe fitter, crane operator, sharecropper and store manager while his mother worked as a schoolteacher. His father battled alcoholism for years, a problem that would eventually result in divorce after the younger Lott left for the University of Mississippi, where he quickly became a big man on campus.

Lott went on to study law at Ole Miss, where he encountered liberal, Yale-educated professors whose mission, in Lott’s view, was to “lead these poor, barefoot Southern boys out of the wilderness.”

“What those young professors did was create a backlash,” Lott writes. Instead of making us more liberal, they helped create a generation of thoughtful, issue-oriented conservatives who grew up to run Mississippi politics,” he writes.

It was while he was working for a Democrat, Rep. William Colmer, that Lott embraced the Republican Party. He ran as a Republican — and won — following Colmer’s retirement in 1972, claiming victory in a district that was 90 percent Democratic.

Lott could sense a movement brewing following the 1978 Congressional elections when a new breed of conservatives — including Dick Cheney, Dan Quayle and Newt Gingrich — won election to the House.

The movement was really ready to launch following Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980. Things went swimmingly for a while, with Lott serving as House minority whip. But creeping deficits and the Iran-Contra scandal caused the Reagan administration to stray from its policy of fiscal responsibility.

By the late 1980s, Lott sensed something wasn’t quite right with the president.

“During one visit to the Oval Office, I remembered speaking to President Reagan, and he looked like I didn’t know who he was,” Lott writes. “I had no details, of course, but I knew he was having memory problems. His troubles had obviously begun.”

Lott’s election to the Senate in 1988 was engineered by none other than Dick Morris, who went on to become the mastermind behind Bill Clinton’s successful presidential campaign. Clinton was difficult to work with, Lott says, because he was constantly making conservative overtures while obviously being pulled back to the left by Gore and first lady Hillary Clinton.

One example is the proposed tobacco settlement, on which Congress and the Clinton administration believed they had reached a deal.

But Gore influenced Clinton to pursue a Democratic version that that conceded the tobacco industry nothing. Without administration support, the deal collapsed, falling victim to “petty infighting and ambitious politicking in the Clinton White House.”

Semi-interesting stuff. Yet, one gets the feeling that, without the Thurmond incident, Lott isn’t as interesting — or polarizing — enough figure to warrant a pot-stirring, bestselling memoir.


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