Finding a role for Lott

I’ve known Trent Lott since I first came to Washington back in 1970.
In those days, hard as it may be to believe now, there was an actual conservative coalition of Republicans and mostly Southern Democrats who worked together at both the member and staff levels on matters of mutual interest. Trent was, of course, chief of staff to Rules Committee Chairman Bill Colmer (D-Miss.) in those days, and I was a political assistant to the Vice President Spiro Agnew.

I’ve known Trent Lott since I first came to Washington back in 1970.

In those days, hard as it may be to believe now, there was an actual conservative coalition of Republicans and mostly Southern Democrats who worked together at both the member and staff levels on matters of mutual interest. Trent was, of course, chief of staff to Rules Committee Chairman Bill Colmer (D-Miss.) in those days, and I was a political assistant to the Vice President Spiro Agnew.

We were young then and had come to change both Washington and the world. I think we’ve made some progress in the years since, but much remains to be done.

Trent did yeoman work as a House staffer back in those days and decided to run for Congress when his boss retired. He was initially going to run as a Democrat, and remains to this day the only Democrat to whom I have contributed, but came to his senses at the last minute and told Colmer he “couldn’t sit on that side of the aisle.” Colmer, according to Trent, said he’d support him anyway but cautioned his young assistant, “If you want to run as a Republican, you’re actually going to have to work.”

In the years since, Trent has worked, and worked hard. He climbed the leadership ladder in the House, ran for the Senate and, as everyone in Washington knows, rose to majority leader, where he did a creditable job. But Washington is Washington, and he found that one’s friends aren’t often around when you need them most.

I know that after the hurricane hit Mississippi and wiped out his home, Lott considered packing it in. He’s never made a lot of money and could easily do so, given his background, experience and ability. In the end, though, he decided to stick around, not for his own sake but for the sake of a party entering a tough election.

His fellow Republicans owe him for what many did to him and for what he is now doing for them. The question is: What does he want, and how can he best serve the cause that brought him here as a young man fresh from Mississippi? He’s rumored to want back into the leadership and is said to have considered taking on Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for majority leader briefly until it became clear that McConnell has the votes to defeat any and all comers.

That leaves the whip’s job. It would be something of a comedown for one who has had the top job, and you’ve got to wonder whether it would prove as satisfying as it was when he had it before he moved up to majority leader. One also has to wonder whether McConnell will be as comfortable with him in the No. 2 job knowing that Lott, loyal or not, will be mentally second-guessing his every move.

These leadership races are uniquely the result of internal considerations that often turn on personal and political considerations that those of us on the outside can never really understand. But whether the Republicans win or lose their Senate majority this fall, one has to believe they’re ready for the tough, focused leadership they are likely to get from McConnell, who knows how the place works and has actually read the Constitution as well as the Senate rules.

When Lott was leader, he had an informal deputy in the person of the late Sen. Paul Coverdell (R) of Georgia. Paul was a gentleman, completely trustworthy and with no agenda other than his loyalty to his party and Lott. When he died, everyone who knew Coverdell was devastated, and without him Lott lost some of the focus that characterized his early performance as leader.

Maybe McConnell is going to need a Coverdell to turn the Senate into a functioning legislative body. If he does, Tennessee Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) might be better suited for the job. There was a time when he, like everyone else in politics, seemed to see every job as a steppingstone to another, but he got that out of his system after demonstrating some years ago that as a presidential candidate he was a pretty good piano player.

Since his election to the Senate, Alexander seems to have found his niche and has developed into a serious and effective conservative legislator who focuses not on headlines but results. He’s thoughtful and well-liked and might be just the sort of fellow someone like McConnell could rely on.

As for Trent, the Senate needs a conscience; someone of who has the background, courage and willingness to hold his colleagues’ feet to the fire and who remembers what brought him here in the first place. It’s a job for which Trent Lott has spent a lifetime preparing.

Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, is a managing associate with Carmen Group, a D.C.-based governmental-affairs firm (www.carmengrouplobbying.com).