A Man Out Of Time

It was just a quick stop, at a store on a campaign trip through the Northeast more than a dozen years ago. Trent Lott, then a Mississippi congressman about to make his move for the Senate, was visiting a state for a Republican candidate. When Lott walked in, he asked: "Why aren't there any black people here?" a source who has spent time with him in unguarded moments tells NEWSWEEK. Nervously, someone explained that this was not the most diverse of regions. "Not even behind the counter?" Lott said. Warming to his punch line, Lott added: "We'd be happy to send you up some if you need any"--and then chuckled. Asked about the incident last week, Lott told NEWSWEEK: "I can't imagine when I would have done that. I don't believe I did that. I deny that I did that, but you know I can't deny every word or that I may have been in the area." If anything "close to that was uttered, that would have been totally out of order," Lott said.

He appeared to sense that the remark would belong to a world that, before last week, many Americans hoped was long gone, or, if not gone, certainly not the one inhabited by the majority leader of the United States Senate.

To the former Ole Miss cheerleader accustomed to the hyperbolic flattery and clubbiness of the Senate, his words at Strom Thurmond's 100th-birthday party may have seemed just another tip of the hat to the old man. "I was winging it," Lott said in his latest apology last Friday afternoon in Pascagoula. "I was too much into the moment." On wing at the birthday party, he said: "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." That Thurmond ran on a segregationist ticket, fired by fury at Harry Truman's rather mild civil-rights measures, was not explicitly mentioned. Lott thought the affair "lighthearted," but he should have remembered his Faulkner. "The past is never dead," the Mississippi novelist once wrote. "It's not even past."

President George W. Bush was eloquent in distancing himself from Lott last week, evoking Lincoln--the only port a Republican president has in this kind of storm. The problem with making the Party of Lincoln defense convincing is that race lies near the heart of the GOP's sway over the South. When Thurmond walked out of the feverish 1948 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, he headed south, where he named Mississippi's segregationist governor, Fielding Wright, as his Dixiecrat running mate. In that moment and in the ensuing campaign for "states' rights"--code for "segregation"--Thurmond carried four states and started building the foundations of the party that would ultimately send Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and two George Bushes to the White House.

The power of Southern Republicanism is a political reality that Bush and his guru Karl Rove understand very well. The painful legacy on which it is built, however, is something they would just as soon we all forget. Lott's effusive birthday remark has cast a stark light on the grimy engine room of the post-World War II GOP and inadvertently drawn attention to his own history, one marked by nods to a neo-South of Confederate and "separate but equal" sentimentalists.

Chester Trent Lott Jr. was 7 years old when Thurmond's States Rights Democrats set up shop in the Heidelberg Hotel in Jackson, Miss., and he is a child of that milieu, his own life and career intertwined with the rise of the Republican Party in the country's most influential political region. Lott's grandfathers and an uncle were local officeholders, and he remembers sitting under the front porch listening to them talk politics. The son of a shipyard pipe fitter and a devout, piano-playing teacher who'd been raised in the Church of Christ, Lott has spent his life obsessed with bringing order to chaos, which he first tried to do in his childhood, one rocked by his daddy's drinking. When Julia Reed, a NEWSWEEK contributing editor, got a rare interview with Lott in his Pascagoula house in the summer of 1996, she found him brushing specks of dirt off a chair, trimming his nails and blotting a drop of coffee off an Oriental rug. His attention turning to a plant that was leaning to one side in its basket, Lott struggled to right it. "What's happening here? My plant's wobbling," he said. "Trent, leave the plant alone," his wife, Tricia, said. "I can't," he replied.

He's always built cocoons to protect himself: first by forging a bond with his mother against his father's instability; later in his Ole Miss fraternity against the disorienting shock waves of the civil-rights movement, and still later in elite Republican circles against the left. But now the cocoon of Trent Lott's life is cracking.

The origins of modern American politics--and, though Lott was in grade school, the roots of the culture that would one day carry him to power--can be traced to a particularly fraught week in Philadelphia in July 1948. Truman, an accidental president who had won the second spot on Franklin Roosevelt's 1944 ticket in part because he came from a border state--not as liberal as the then Vice President Henry Wallace of Iowa, not as conservative as James Byrnes of segregated South Carolina--had agreed to a civil-rights platform plank. A prime speaker on the issue was the young mayor of Minneapolis. "I say the time has come to walk out of the shadow of states' rights and into the sunlight of human rights," said Hubert Humphrey. Soon the convention erupted, and the Alabama and Mississippi delegations bolted. (Eugene [Bull] Connor, an Alabama delegate, was among their number.)

Back in Birmingham, Thurmond, then South Carolina's governor, accepted the Dixiecrats' presidential nomination. Jim Crow had been a frightened reaction to the end of the bitter decades of Reconstruction in the late 19th century; since the North had been singularly unmagnanimous in victory, the South answered in kind, exacting the price from the most convenient target--blacks. "I want to tell you," Thurmond told the States Rights convention, "that there's not enough troops in the Army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the Negro race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes and into our churches." It was a message that cost Truman the usually reliable Democratic states of Alabama, Louisiana, South Carolina--and Mississippi.

There are three distinct regions in Trent Lott's home state: the hill country, the Gulf Coast and the Delta. Lott was born in the first, grew up in the second and has never felt entirely at home in the third. This is telling, for the Delta is often seen as the more sophisticated section of the state--home to terrible violence, yes, but also to more progressive people like the late editor Hodding Carter Jr., whose paper won a Pulitzer Prize for editorials urging racial tolerance in the 1940s. Though many respectable whites may have been segregationists--the system could not have survived without their support--they very rarely put on a sheet or built a bomb; they let the lower classes do that work for them. Poorer farmers and blue-collar workers had little else to hold on to other than their race. Life's glittering prizes might have eluded them, but a segregated society at least gave them this: they weren't black.

Lott's ties are closer to that sphere than they are to the (slightly) more liberal part of the state. "The people in the Delta... always called us rednecks and hillbillies," said Lott's uncle Arnie Watson, a former state senator. The planter-poet William Alexander Percy, whose memoir "Lanterns on the Levee" is the Ur-text of the Delta's aristocratic self-image, described a political crowd in the county where Lott was born as "ill-dressed, unintelligent and slinking--the sort of people who lynch Negroes, attend revivals, and fight and fornicate in the bushes afterwards."

Lott's mission in life was to escape. His tickets out: a strong, loving mother, Ole Miss and then politics. Like the young Bill Clinton, who grew up in a neighboring state, Lott found himself trying to make peace between his parents. Conflict seems to have been fueled by drink and disappointment. Chester Trent Lott Sr. bounced from job to job in the hill country before finding permanent work on the coast. "Regardless of his faults, his daddy always loved Trent," his mother said. "He didn't act out in front of him, and I didn't down him to Trent, because he was his father and he didn't really want to be the way he was." The elder Lott was killed in a car accident in 1969--a fact his son alluded to in his press conference last week.

As a child Lott found sanctuary in his mother's company. They spent Sunday afternoons together playing music, Miss Iona on the piano and Trent singing hymns. Relentless and ambitious, Lott loved seeking office, first at Pascagoula High, where he was class president. "Whatever there was to run for, he would run for it," his mother said. "It was just born in him." Not quite: it was probably learned, too, as a way of seeking approval and order in a universe beyond the house.

Lott hates such psychological speculation. Thinking hard about the past is not his strong suit. People close to Lott say he is unreflective and prefers motion to substance. His favorite phrases are "straight ahead" and "up or out." Why talk about what you can't change? He may have absorbed this early, at home, and there may be an element of this selective amnesia at work in the current storm.

"I don't want this going too long," he said in his press conference, twice, looking at his watch. Lott's problem is that in this moment, in 2002, the two great forces in his life are colliding: his love of order and the events that were unfolding all around him when he was growing up--and which he appears not to have ever thought about deeply enough to avoid making the kinds of remarks that are now haunting him.

Lott loved ole miss--and still does, going to football games in Oxford when he can and working the crowd in the Grove, a wooded enclave where alumni come to mingle and drink. Life at Oxford in the late '50s and early '60s made him: the certitudes of fraternity row, cheerleading and law school gave him a sense of security he had not had growing up. He joined Sigma Nu, never drank and became a cheerleader. In the curious political culture of Mississippi, the cheerleading post had a storied past: the legendary John Stennis, Mississippi's longtime senator, had been one at Mississippi State, and Lott's future Senate colleague Thad Cochran cheered at Ole Miss four years before Lott.

Life was a series of pep rallies and quartet performances (Lott had formed a group called the Chancellors, a forerunner of the Singing Senators). Then, in Lott's senior year, James Meredith tried to integrate Ole Miss. The Battle of Oxford ensued; President Kennedy had to send in troops to force the university to comply with the law of the land. In the middle of the crisis, Lott arrived back from cheering at a football game and spent the rest of it in the Sigma Nu house, trying to keep his fraternity brothers from going out to the scene of the action, where the troops and the mob were at war amid tear gas. He said he was "horrified" by the violence. "I couldn't believe that it had come to that." Life was messy outside; better to stay in. Last week, Time.com, quoting former CNN president Tom Johnson, who was a Sigma Nu at the University of Georgia, reported that Lott took part in a drive to keep the Sigma Nu national fraternity from integrating. Lott told NEWSWEEK that he agreed with the segregationists and attended the convention where the issue was debated--but only to perform with his singing group. "I was in the entertainment," Lott said. "I did not speak."

But while Lott was singing, the political landscape around him was changing. As the hero of Normandy, Dwight Eisenhower had not needed to exploit racial fears in 1952 and 1956. In 1960, Richard Nixon, who called civil rights a "national problem," not just a Southern problem, split the South with the Kennedy-Johnson ticket. Two trends were beginning to become apparent. Kennedy's apparent sympathy with the movement in 1960 began to break the longtime Republican lock on the black vote, especially in the North, and Nixon was intrigued at the avid reaction of white Southern voters to talk of going slower on civil rights. When President Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he said, "We just delivered the South to the Republican Party for a long time to come." That same year, Barry Goldwater openly married his Western antigovernment philosophy and cold-war hawkishness to the South's growing defiance, winning five Southern states. One shrewd political tactician who knew what it was like to lose a close election watched Goldwater closely. Nixon had an eye on a comeback in 1968 and knew he needed the South--all of it this time.

By the time Nixon was putting his "Southern Strategy" into place, Lott was finding the same sort of seemingly reassuring rhythms on Capitol Hill that he had found at Sigma Nu. In 1968 Lott had left a fledgling law practice on the Gulf Coast to work as an administrative assistant to Rep. William Colmer, a Democratic congressman from Lott's district who was, like most Southern Democrats of his day, a segregationist. Despite Colmer's party affiliation, it was he, Lott says, "who helped make a Republican out of me... I watched him day in and day out philosophically identify with the Republicans--not the Democrats." Like the other Southern conservatives, Colmer "didn't like fiscal irresponsibility, he didn't like government solutions, he thought national defense was important," said Lott.

Lott says he "crossed the Rubicon" at a meeting on the Hill of the "Young Burros Club," a gathering of Democratic staffers that was being addressed by Ray Blanton, a congressman from Tennessee who would become governor and then be convicted for selling pardons, and Lawrence O'Brien, then chairman of the Democratic National Committee. (The Watergate burglars were arrested bugging O'Brien's office.) Midway through one of the "Burros" speeches, Lott punched his companion and said, "You know, I don't agree with one word that has been said in this room. I am not a Democrat." When Colmer later announced he would retire, Lott decided to run for his seat as a Republican. "I talked to Tricia," he recalled, "and the discussion was not trying to decide if I would run or not, it was: 'If I'm going to run, it's going to be as a Republican, and if that's the case, can I win?' " When Lott told his boss that he was switching parties, Colmer said, "I admire you for your courage, but I fear you are embarking on a hopeless crusade."

Colmer's prediction does not rank among the shrewdest in Southern political history. "I'm tired of the Muskies and the Kennedys and the Humphreys and the whole lot," Lott said in filing as a Republican. He was riding the right wave.

By the time Lott--who says he never "even saw a live Republican" when he was growing up--signed on with the GOP, the party of Nixon was the hot ticket in the South. Becoming a Republican in Mississippi in 1972 was like joining the Rotary Club. The move fit the pattern of Lott's life: the safest course was the most popular one. In 1968 Mississippi had given Nixon just 13.5 percent of the vote. (George Wallace won with 63.5 percent.) In '72, the year Lott won his House seat, Nixon won a thumping 78 percent.

Race was not the only element in the Republican resurgence in the late 1960s. The Democrats--long the main bulwark of segregation in the South--were in the midst of running off the left side of the road with a cultural liberalism that alienated many Americans. The war in Vietnam remained more popular in the old Confederacy than in other regions, and many Southerners had respectable and legitimate grievances against big government that had absolutely nothing to do with civil rights. But race was there in the beginning, and lingers still. When Nixon talked about "law and order," it was not hard to figure out what he meant; Thurmond had tested similar themes two decades before. If Truman's civil-rights program was to be enforced, Thurmond said at a campaign stop in Cherryville, N.C., "the results of civil strife may be horrible beyond imagination. Lawlessness will be rampant. Chaos will prevail. And there will be the greatest breakdown of law enforcement in the history of the nation."

Lyndon Johnson's prediction was coming true.

The more mainstream the national republicans became under Ronald Reagan and George Bush--in 1984, the Gipper would carry 48 states; in '88, Bush senior would win 40--the stranger the pro-Confederate neo-Southern element of the party seemed. While the GOP moved on, Lott found himself still tethered to the murky universe of The Southern Partisan Magazine and the hard-right Council of Conservative Citizens, where Southerners obsessed with the past share an affinity for an Old South that is not as Old as many Americans would like to think. Lott's brand of post-Jim Crow politics was a blend of overt sun-belt pragmatism (lower taxes and spending, except for projects in your own state) and occasional reflexive salutes to the local gods of "heritage"--the new code word for Confederate imagery and ideology.

Lott's fierce ambition and fondness for order propelled him through the leadership ranks on the Hill. For years he mostly seemed a legislative mechanic who kept things moving, a dealmaker who knew how to make the Senate run. "I didn't go to Washington to make a statement," Lott said. "I like trying to get things done." On racial issues, though, there was a rightward pattern of votes and statements that unfolded in plain sight but did not attract much attention until now. Lott talked last week about his work on jobs and infrastructure and trade with Africa, but he voted against extending the Voting Rights Act; against the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday; against tracking racial hate crimes. And he twice--not once but twice--averred that Strom Thurmond's America would have been preferable to Harry Truman's, or, presumably, Dwight Eisenhower's or John Kennedy's.

Of course, Lott was not the only modern Republican to play the race card. In 1980 Reagan talked about states' rights in Philadelphia, Miss., and his well-worn anecdote about a Chicago "welfare queen" was not a particularly subtle allusion to African-Americans. In 1988 a group sympathetic to George Bush's presidential campaign produced the "Willie Horton ad" attacking Michael Dukakis's furlough program. And when George W. Bush was on the run from John McCain in the early 2000 presidential race, he went to the fundamentalist Bob Jones University in South Carolina to shore up his base. (Bob Jones, which prohibits interracial dating, once had a friend in Trent Lott, who filed a brief defending the school's tax-exempt status, saying: "If racial discrimination in the interest of diversity does not violate public policy, then surely discrimination in the practices of religion is no violation.")

Perhaps the ugliest moment of the 2000 race was a smear campaign against McCain in the South Carolina primary in which leaflets, e-mails and telephone calls alluded to his "black child"--a little girl the McCains had adopted from Bangladesh. The Bush campaign denied involvement, and no one has been able to tie them to the incident.

Whoever did it crossed a line that most political operations in the South no longer get near. You didn't have to whistle "Dixie" in order to win anymore. Lott's colleague Thad Cochran did not, and the state elected a Democratic governor three years ago. For Lott, it is as though he came to the party with a world view formed, perhaps unconsciously, by the times in which he came of age and had not really re-examined some of the assumptions he had long taken for granted. "Look," he once said, "I am a product of my times and my state and my family." Precisely so, though many other Mississippians were moving beyond those times.

"Trent has always been very sensitive about his appearance," his mother said--and so has his party, which is one reason his Thurmond toast is so mystifying to so many. Why remind people of a past better forgotten? Could it be that Lott's slip of the tongue revealed his true feelings, no matter how many years have passed? That is the suspicion at the center of the storm, and Lott has yet to convincingly dispel it.

It is the rare white American who has not made a remark or laughed at a joke that would be wounding to an African-American. Redemption is as fundamental a national principle for us as equality, and the South's historic change of heart in the past 35 years or so is one of the great stories of American political and moral history. Therein lies an irony: because we have done so much to broaden the lines of tolerance, retrograde rhetoric stands out even more. Lott is not a racist in the nightriding sense, but his paper trail of comments and votes on race strike many people as inappropriate to the high office he holds in a multiracial democracy in the opening years of the 21st century. Last week he looked hurt when he said, more than once, "... I'm not about to resign for an accusation that I'm something I'm not." That is a case the Ole Miss-trained lawyer will have to keep making.

And he now has a huge national jury. In Washington on Thursday, Dec. 5, John Lewis, the Democratic congressman from Atlanta and a hero of the civil-rights struggle, turned on C-Span in time to catch Thurmond's 100th-birthday party. "I was shocked," said Lewis, who was born a year before Lott in Alabama and was beaten in the streets in the '60s. "I couldn't believe it. To say what Lott said took my mind to another period." Lewis paused, thinking. "There's some history here, and if anyone should understand that history, it should be Lott. People say, 'Oh, it was long ago,' but we have to face that history. We can't sweep it under the rug, or put it in a dark corner." Does Lewis want Lott to stay on as leader? "Oh yes," he says. "We don't want people to forget."

Lewis was watching in his Capitol Hill town house. The majority leader's office is nearby, on the Senate side of the Capitol. Lott loves that office--he had to give it up a year ago when Jim Jeffords of Vermont defected--and the clubby culture of the Hill, which he thinks of as kind of a white marble Sigma Nu house. "Take a look out here," Lott once said to a Future Leader of America from Natchez, Miss., who was visiting the majority leader's suite. "It's the first time in history Mississippi's owned this view." The state's lease may be running out. The boy who sang with his mother on those distant Sunday afternoons--and who first performed on the radio at the age of 4--joyfully sang a few songs with his colleagues and the visiting Oak Ridge Boys in the Capitol Rotunda a few years back. The most moving piece: "Amazing Grace." Lott needs it now.

A Man Out Of Time | News