With book, Lott quiet no more

GOP senator is bitter over loss of leader's post

August 28, 2005|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - After Sen. Trent Lott was deposed as the Republican leader in December 2002 because of a racially charged remark, he slipped into the background, quietly rebuilding his power and career.

But Lott is quiet no more, with a new memoir and an accompanying national book tour in which he is providing a behind-the-scenes view of his more than 30 years representing Mississippi in Congress and his admittedly inept handling of a furor that began with words of praise for Sen. Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party.

"This is a story I wanted to tell," Lott said as he held his first autograph session for the book, Herding Cats, at a Barnes & Noble bookstore Thursday in Reston, Va.

The book covers Lott's hardscrabble childhood in Mississippi, his days at the University of Mississippi during forced integration, his early years as a rare Southern Republican, his rapid rise in the House and Senate, and his fall after what he called "my innocent and thoughtless remark" just as he was to make a triumphant return as the Senate majority leader.

The remark, delivered to a crowd packed into a Senate reception room Dec. 5, 2002, would soon become infamous: "I want to say this about my state," Lott told the partygoers. "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, Mississippians voted for him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either." (Thurmond sought the presidency in 1948 as the nominee of a Southern splinter group that had broken from the Democratic Party.)

The book's characterization of the comment as being innocent has critics suggesting that Lott still does not grasp why a statement that could easily be interpreted as supporting Thurmond's segregationist past could provoke such resentment.

The first questioner at Lott's appearance in Reston accused the senator of glossing over his opposition to some civil rights initiatives, and said his record in that regard was a factor in the loss of his leadership post, because it created a context for the Thurmond comment.

Lott conceded that there was something to that. "We struggle with our past in the Mississippi area, but we are trying to do better and look to the future and make life better for all of our people," he responded.

In an interview, the senator said he had done what he could to show remorse for the troublesome statement. "I tried to explain that I understand it and apologize for it," he said. "I call it innocent but insensitive and indefensible. What do I need to do, lay down on the floor and flagellate myself?"

The audience at the bookstore event was otherwise supportive, with one young fan bringing a "Trent Lott for President 2008" T-shirt. Lott said that he did not share the ambition of many of his Senate colleagues. "I have been close enough to see how hard it is," he said of the presidency.

The book also deals with Watergate and Lott's backing of President Richard M. Nixon, his partnership with former Democratic leader Tom Daschle in walking the political tightrope of the impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton, the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, and the buildup to the Iraq war.

"Even today, knowing what I know now, I would have voted to give the president the authority to make war," the book says.

Lott has made no secret of harboring bitterness toward the way he lost his post, taking an occasional shot at President Bush and senior White House officials who he believes undermined him in the crisis. But in the book he directs much of his anger at the current majority leader, Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee, and others who helped put Frist into power.

"I considered Frist's power grab a personal betrayal," Lott wrote, saying Frist had been his protege, a junior senator whom Lott had pushed for select committee slots and promoted to the White House. "We'd been friends off and on the floor, and that's pretty rare in a governmental body loaded with lone wolves and immense egos."

A spokeswoman for Frist said the senator had not read the book but always welcomed Lott's insights.

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