Whip It Good

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DECEMBER 18, 2006

Whip It Good

Inside the Republican senators' November 15 closed-door meeting topick their leaders for the next Congress, minority whip candidateLamar Alexander had reason to feel good. His nominators had givenenthusiastic pitches, and he had been campaigning hard for the jobfor nearly a year. Meanwhile, his opponent, Trent Lott, had enteredthe race just a week earlier-- and was perceived to be damagedgoods, having been spectacularly deposed from the leadership inDecember 2002 after he made a racially charged quip at his buddyStrom Thurmond's one-hundredth birthday party. But then, OregonSenator Gordon Smith rose to give a nominating speech for Lott.Smith's address was deeply emotional: He described Lott's honorablecharacter and talked about the possibility of redemption. He evenquoted from Mark Antony's funeral oration in Shakespeare's JuliusCaesar. The room fell silent; Lott wept. When the doors opened,Lott had been elected minority whip by a single vote.

"The evil that men do lives after them," Antony famously laments.Not so with Trent Lott. Four years ago, after Lott said that "wewouldn't have had all these problems" if the segregationistThurmond had become president, his colleagues abandoned him,and--in the unkindest cut of all--his own protege, Bill Frist,seized his majority leader post. Given all this, his reinstatementseems miraculous. According to a friend of Lott's familiar with theelection proceedings, the senators chose Lott for whip because theyfelt he "harkened back to another era." How did this Lott nostalgiadevelop? After all, they once dumped him precisely for expressingsome misplaced nostalgia of his own.

Instead of being bitter, Lott returned to Washington after the 2002winter recess with a great big smile--and a brash attitude thatbrought his successor's timidity into high relief. Frist, who washandpicked by the White House, dutifully looked there for his cuesand refused to ruffle any feathers in the hopes of running forpresident himself. "There was a beef in the Senate that Fristdidn't tell anybody `no,'" says a Republican who works regularlywith the senators. In contrast, his party's painful rejection setLott free. He delighted the press with ballsy, even mischievousquotes (when Harriet Miers withdrew her Supreme Court nomination,he warbled "Happy Days Are Here Again") and toyed with becoming areformer, teaming up with Democrat Ron Wyden to try to end theSenate practice of anonymously blocking bills. "Lott was the mostliberated man in Washington after he had to step down as leader.Nothing could hurt his feelings. I think he was enjoying it," sayslobbyist Ed Rogers, a longtime friend of Lott's.

The apotheosis of Lott's new style came in 2005, when he was able todance in and out of the nasty fight over judicial nominations as hepleased. He worked on a compromise to avoid the dreaded "nuclearoption" that would have changed Senate rules to disablefilibusters; then he publicly gave up on it; then, at the appeal ofSenator John McCain, he slipped into McCain's office through a sidedoor to give the deadlocked Gang of 14 a crucial pep talk thathelped lead to an agreement. "[Lott] has really enjoyed bringingsides together, being a dealmaker, with no visible skin in thegame," says a former Republican Senate aide. "He seems completenow."

As the GOP's 2006 prospects got gloomier, nostalgia for Lott's reignbegan to take shape. Whereas Frist had used his leadership tocement ties between Senate Republicans and the White House, Lotthad used the loss of his leadership to establish his independencefrom the administration. By the time Michael Brown bungledHurricane Katrina and Bush's numbers began to tank, the latterstrategy seemed like the wiser one, and Lott was being rememberednot as a damage-control disaster with a big mouth but as a notablyeffective leader. "I think [Lott's] colleagues looked at him andbasically said, `This would be a great time to have somebody alittle more concerned about us and a little less concerned aboutthem,'" says uber-pundit Norman Ornstein.

Indeed, several close to Lott report that, after Katrina (whichflattened his Pascagoula, Mississippi home) convinced him not toretire, more than one senator asked him to run for leadership--andnot for whip, either. There was even some soul-searching about howthe party had treated him. "With the benefit of time, some[Republican senators] thought he was unfairly pooped-upon" in 2002,says a Republican Senate leadership aide.

Lott didn't shy away from fanning the ardor with coyness: "I want tokeep it dangling out there to keep everyone uneasy," he said ofrunning for leadership in December 2005. But, as the electionapproached, Lott began an under-the- radar campaign for whip inwhich his allies--who included McCain and Arizona Senator JonKyl--began "talking to others and asking them not to commit," saysthe former Senate aide. He delicately refused to formally declarehis intentions, however, until his friend Rick Santorum, who alsowanted to be whip, was officially defeated. This contrasted withthe striving Alexander, who started campaigning early, announced hehad a majority of votes, and began naming names--which was seen aspresumptuous.

By the time the Republican senators collected in the Capitol toelect their next leadership team, the tide of the moment was poisedto carry Lott back into power: Depressed by electoral defeat,Republicans were less interested in fresh leadership than mighthave been expected--as reform House leadership candidate Mike Pencenoted after his crushing loss, Republicans had been so badgered byDemocrats talking about "change" during the campaign that they weresick of the word. "Once Senate Republicans went into the minority,they thought a different skill set was needed," says another formerSenate aide. Perhaps the most important skill that Lott offered wasa political survival instinct that might finally allow the GOP tostop propping up the Bush administration and prop up themselvesinstead.

But there was one last deeper, more psychological reason why theRepublican senators would want to restore Lott's crown. Smith'smoving speech reminded them of an object lesson: Tragedy hadbefallen Lott, in the form of the Strom episode and Katrina, and hehad come back fighting, a stronger and better person than before.It was a particularly resonant journey for the senators, now hopingto redeem themselves from their own electoral fall from grace. AsSmith's speech reached its finale, Senator Bob Bennett, who hadnominated Alexander, began to cross out the names on his list ofpossible Alexander votes. And so, somewhat amazingly, Lott finallyregained power not in spite of his disastrous comment, but becauseof it.

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