A Call to Order Trent Lott's passion for control and his talent for taking charge have made him what he is today -- the most powerful Republican in the land.

February 23, 1997|By Karen Hosler | Karen Hosler,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

PASCAGOULA, Miss. The night sky was lit by flames from burning cars, the smoky air stinging with tear gas. Bottles, bricks and rocks were hurtling toward the federal marshals surrounding the campus administration building.

On that evening of Sept. 30, 1962, thousands of students at the University of Mississippi - joined by others from throughout the state - were waging a savage protest against the court-ordered admission of James Meredith, a 29-year-old black man. By the end of the 15-hour riot, a journalist and a jukebox repairman from a nearby town would be shot dead, dozens injured and 150 people arrested.

On the other side of campus, 20-year-old Trent Lott was trying to impose order on his corner of the chaos.

As chapter commander of his fraternity, Sigma Nu, Lott was working the phone and sending out messengers, trying to round up all 120 of his brothers - particularly the freshmen pledges living in dormitories near the center of the riot - and bring them to the shelter of the Sigma Nu house.

Don't go over there, he exhorted fraternity brothers again and again. There's no need for you to get involved in that craziness.

It wasn't an easy sell.

"Most of us were unreconstructed rebels," says William D. Trahan, a Sigma Nu who briefly took part in the protest. "We were fired up for reasons that had a lot more to do with the federal government than they did with James Meredith. One hundred years after the [Civil] War we felt like we were still being treated like a conquered province."

Lott felt the same way. He didn't think Meredith belonged at Ole Miss, didn't believe in forced racial integration.

But he wasn't about to be consumed by an ideological cause or carried away by emotions of the moment. His real passion was for order and control. What he cared about was keeping his fraternity brothers safe and out of jail.

"I was alarmed by what was happening," Lott says.

Instead of going up to the roof with Trahan and others to watch the campus burn, Lott remained glued to the phone. His roundup operation was conducted in what is now recognized as the Senate majority leader's trademark style: energetic, disciplined, highly organized, goal-oriented.

"Trent was cool, calm and in charge," Trahan says. "Even then, he had a presence."

And even then, he got results. With the exception of Lott's best friend, Gayland Roberts, who was arrested while trying to help a friend rescue his car, every member of Sigma Nu got through that night unscathed.

"We were very fortunate," Lott says now.

The skills he displayed during the riot earned him an Achievement of the Year award from his fraternity. And they would be marshaled again and again during his rise from a small-town Mississippi boy to the most powerful Republican in the country.

Trent Lott likes to say that Mississippi now owns the best view in Washington: the panorama of monuments and museums visible

from his spacious office on the west front of the Capitol. But he still prefers sitting in a rocker on the wide front porch of his antebellum Creole house in Pascagoula, gazing past the beach and the murky water of Mississippi Sound to the barrier islands on the horizon.

With its graceful mansions and ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, Lott's neighborhood along Beach Boulevard is by far the prettiest place in Pascagoula. Much of the town is dominated by a commercial shipyard, a Coast Guard installation and a Navy home port. Hulking cranes, dry docks, warehouses and mounds of rusty metal mar the banks of the Singing River on the west side. A Chevron refinery looms over the horizon in the east.

Lott spent much of his youth in this blue-collar universe, along what used to be the town's main north-south thoroughfare, Pascagoula Street. This was where he lived, went to school, sang in his Baptist church choir, married his college sweetheart and learned the courtesies and traditions of Southern life.

He and his parents moved into a little house in the north end of town after his father, Chester P. Lott, gave up on farming in his native Grenada, Miss., and came to work at the shipyard. Trent was nearly 12. An only child, he quickly adopted Dee Lemaitrie, the girl next door, as his sister. The two went off to junior high and high school together.

By their senior year, Trent and Dee were Mr. and Mrs. Pascagoula High, homecoming king and queen, and president and secretary of the senior class. He was leader in the High Y and the Key Club, and played the tuba in the school band. Lott and Gayland Roberts took turns playing the lead in school plays and sang in a quartet.

Voted the "neatest boy" in his class, Lott was already known for his meticulous appearance. His thick, dark hair was smartly parted; he sported a bow tie on occasion. "And he didn't like his food to touch," says Dee Lemaitrie Phillips, who now runs Lott's Pascagoula office. "He would eat one item at a time, and then turn the plate."

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