Trent Lott, Nice Guy
Jude Wanniski
December 23, 2002

 

Memo To: The Republican Party
From: Jude Wanniski
Re: He Was Expendable

After it was over, with Trent announcing he would quit the Senate Leadership post he has held since 1996, former Senator Bob Dole said he could not understand how it could have happened. Dole was at Senator Strom Thurmondís 100th birthday party and with almost everyone else in attendance chuckled at the little joke Trent told on himself and Strom Thurmond, an old joke about Thurmondís 1948 run for President as a segregationist Third Party candidate. Anyone who knows Strom and Trent and has followed their careers, knows they have survived as long as they have because they are gentle, good-hearted men without the mean-spiritedness that shows up in so many politicians.

Thurmond got elected to the Senate for a half century with the support of South Carolinaís whites and blacks because he not only changed with the times, but also because he was affirmative in wanting to bridge the racial divide in a way the extremists could respect. There is no black village or neighborhood in South Carolina that he hasnít gotten to know through a genuine eagerness to do what he could to be of help and earn his political support. Iíve been a political friend of Trentís for a quarter century, since I met him in 1977 as a congressional foot-soldier in Jack Kempís army of supply-siders. They comprised a quintet of backbenchers who called themselves ďThe Amigos,Ē the other three being Newt Gingrich of Georgia, Connie Mack of Florida and Vin Weber of Minnesota.

Iíve been especially proud of Trentís passage from the Mississippi of yore Ė the most racist of states Ė to a steady, positive model of transformation. Northern whites and black commentators in recent days have excoriated him for speaking to the all-white, allegedly ďracistĒ Concerned Citizenís Council of Jackson in years past. But if a Senator aims to help bridge the racial divide among his own constituency, how can he do so if he does not speak to all-black and all-white groups who are suspicious of each other and of changing times? The fact that Lott was so easily re-elected with sizeable proportions of the black and white vote in Mississippi was scarcely mentioned in the media frenzy of the last two weeks.

To answer Doleís question, how this could have possibly happened, the key is in the evenly divided U.S. Senate, which has been on a knife edge in Trentís six years. Heís either had a one-vote deficit or a one-vote margin among Senate Republicans, having to deal with a Democratic President for four of the years and a Republican for two. Trent does not have any ďenemies,Ē but because he has been forced to compromise with the other party every day in order to do the peopleís business, his critics in the GOP are legion. Every day he is criticized for giving up too much to the other side. Iíve gotten along with him so well these last six years because Iíve always understood that he never gave up too much.

It is easy to say President Bush pulled the plug on Trent, but it really was the neo-conservatives in the GOP who were unhappy with Trentís willingness to compromise with the Democrats on Iraq and who hope his successor, Bill Frist of Tennessee, will dig in his heels against the doves. The hawks were then joined by the Republican tax cutters, who have also complained that Trent has not fought for them with enough ferocity. When Trentís old ďAmigoĒ Jack Kemp blasted him for his ďinsensitivity,Ē it was a clear signal for everyone to pile on, including the White House. Then again, in the end Lott was responsible for his own demise by repeatedly apologizing for his joke instead of insisting it was a joke and refusing to apologize. Strom Thurmond has always refused to apologize for any vote or statement he has made in his career, always insisting that at the time he believed he was correct in doing so. Thatís generally the position of the truly honest man. My father told me many times that he may not always have been right, but he was never wrong. He always did what he thought was right. Iím frank to say that I passively opposed a national holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., for one reason or another, but can now see the wisdom in the decision to have it. Trent clearly followed the same track.

He has thousands of friends and he got thousands of messages of support and advice through the ordeal. I urged him to make it go to a vote of his colleagues, as he had done nothing wrong, and it is always a bad idea to resign from an elective office for something you did not do. I suggested in the process he could be a vehicle for a national conversation about the racial divide, and for a moment it looked possible. The White House, though, made it clear it wanted him out of the news. The message was delivered by Secretary of State Colin Powell, in a sharp blast at Trent for the old joke. That had to be a presidential decision, and Trent is too nice a guy to stand in the way of his partyís leader and his countryís President. Dole is right. It sure was quick.