"Dedicated to exposing the lies and impeachable offenses of George W. Bush"

Relegated to a back row, Lott plots, provokes
Star Tribune/NY Times
Sheryl Gay Stolberg
November 26, 2005

WASHINGTON - Trent Lott is talking again -- and again and again and again.

It has been three years since White House officials and some Senate Republicans orchestrated Lott's ouster as Senate majority leader amid an uproar over racially insensitive remarks. Now, Lott is tweaking the Republican elite at every turn and jangling the nerves of official Washington as never before.

As he ponders reelection next year in Mississippi, Lott is also dropping hints about a possible bid for a return to the Senate leadership. Democrats are enjoying the show. Some Republicans are cringing, but others are eyeing Lott with some appreciation.

During an appearance this month at the University of Mississippi, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., predicted that Lott would become Republican leader again, adding, "I will tell anyone that of all the majority leaders we've had in the United States Senate, I believe that Trent Lott was the finest leader we've had."

Others say Lott seems liberated. "He's a free agent," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

"A happy warrior," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, adding, "I think he kind of relishes being a bomb thrower right now."

He also relishes keeping people guessing. After spending more than half of his life in Congress, Lott, 64, is coy about plans. Personally, the senator has had a difficult year; his mother died in July; in August, his home in Pascagoula was destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. Now, Lott, who says he feels an obligation to constituents who have lost as much or more than he has, is weighing whether to stay or leave for a more lucrative opportunity.

"It's difficult," he said. "I've been here a long time, 33 years, and I have to think that through."

Meanwhile, he is having a blast. "My outlook on life," he declared, "is whatever you do in life, do it with gusto and have fun. And I am."

So Lott is taking aim where he will. When White House counsel Harriet Miers withdrew her nomination to the Supreme Court, Lott, who had been openly critical of Miers, was practically gleeful. "In a month," Lott said, in an interview, "who will remember the name Harriet Miers?"

The senator has also thrown darts in the direction of Karl Rove, President Bush's chief political adviser. With Bush's poll ratings dropping, Lott has said the White House might consider "bringing in some new people" -- a jab at Rove, who helped engineer Lott's departure as Republican leader.

Rebuilding his career

The current majority leader, Bill Frist of Tennessee, also seems to be in Lott's sights. In his book, "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics," published in August, Lott wrote that he considered Frist's leadership bid in 2002 "a personal betrayal."

When Frist pushed for a congressional inquiry to determine the source of a Washington Post article about secret prisons run by the CIA, Lott complicated matters by suggesting the leak may have come from a Republican.

Some wonder if Lott's recent barbs are a pre-retirement parting shot. Others say he remains deeply bruised from his fall in 2002 and is exacting payback.

Lott's downfall as Republican leader stemmed from his comments at a 100th birthday tribute to Strom Thurmond, the since-deceased Republican senator from South Carolina who in 1948 ran for president as a segregationist. Mississippi voted for Thurmond, and Lott said that if the rest of the country had done so, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years."

Some thought Lott would quietly slink away, but instead he rebuilt his career as sort of a Republican Greek chorus.

Democrats, for their part, are delighted with Lott; they say they cannot wait to pick up the morning newspaper to read his latest remarks. Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, the No. 3 Democrat in the Senate, laughed aloud at the mere mention of the former Republican leader's name.

Said Dorgan: "We ought to have to pay admission to watch this."