By A. B. Stoddard - 11/28/07 05:11 PM EST
The news that Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) is resigning from Congress within weeks, leaving just one year into a six year term the place where he has spent the last 37 years, seemed so shocking you had to wonder why he came to his abrupt decision over Thanksgiving, and if while making his announcement in Mississippi his signature coif might have been askew.
But every hair was perfectly in place, and with a smile Lott insisted that at 66 he is feeling fine, not sick, and had decided it was time to do something else. Of course Internet rumors that follow every exit from Congress now abound, and official Washington assumes Lott needs to take advantage of a lobbying window that will extend from one year to two the “cooling off” period before he could rake in the cash lobbying former colleagues.
But so what?
No matter the reason, the cliché applies – Lott's departure ends an era on Capitol Hill, and is a blow to the institution. The art of the deal, which he mastered in 19 years of leadership positions in the House and Senate, is a lost one, because the deal is nearly a dinosaur. Today reaching across the caucus or the aisle to compromise or cooperate is considered at best a luxury of safe incumbents, and at worse a waste of time. Lawmakers, on the whole, have realized that their days are better spent micro-targeting, dialing for dollars and shopping for votes than building fragile coalitions and taking risky votes that could cost them at home.
Trent Lott is an old-fashioned legislator, a workhorse who listens, convinces, negotiates, masters mountains of minutia and detail and then listens again. One fan of Lott in the Senate described him this way: “If he supports your bill he helps you get it passed. If he doesn't support your bill he still tells you how to get it passed.” When Lott took over as majority leader in the summer of 1996 in a gridlocked chamber from former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who left to run for president, he wasn't a legendary power broker like Rep. Tom DeLay, an exciting visionary like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) or a headline-making rebel like Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). But Lott worked hard to bring disparate factions together to pass bills, and he succeeded. According to the Washington Post, President Clinton called Lott after the 1996 election to tell him but for his efforts to make the Senate function the Democrats could have won the place back.
In the heated atmosphere that followed the 2000 election the Supreme Court had to decide the presidential election while the U.S. Senate had to decide how to share power with each party controlling 50 seats. Amid pervasive partisanship, with leaders reluctant to cede any power to the minority party, Lott stood out. As he responded cheerily to questions by reporters camped outside the many tense meetings it was clear he felt a responsibility in that historic moment to defend and protect the integrity of the chamber. Lott cut a deal to meet the Democrats half way and when one of his own – Sen. Jim Jeffords of Vermont – left the GOP to become an independent just months later, Lott suddenly found himself leader of the minority. Weeks after Republicans won the chamber back in 2002 Lott was poised to become majority leader once again when his remarks at Strom Thurmond's birthday party became his undoing. His aside, meant as a joke, sounded racist and couldn't be defended by his colleagues. The White House led the charge to push Lott out and Sen. Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) for whom Lott had opened door upon door, jumped in to replace him.
Lott's subsequent years in the shadows and his refusal to quit surprised his colleagues. So did his newfound friendship with McCain, someone he could once barely stomach. Whatever brought them together – be it redemption or perseverance – their new bond helped McCain's early start at another presidential campaign and Lott's road back to the leadership, a feat he accomplished by becoming whip in 2006.
Lott has been through a lot. He deserves to go and make some money. And his contribution to the Congress deserves to be remembered.