Video: Sen. Lott plays 'Hardball'

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updated 1/18/2006 4:59:26 PM ET 2006-01-18T21:59:26

Senator Trent Lott announced on Tuesday that he will run for re-election after a lot of speculation that he might retire.  Senator Lott's discussed all the controversial issues of the day as he spoke Chris Matthews in his first national interview since announcing his re-election bid.

To read an excerpt from their conversation, continue to the text below. To watch the video, click on the "Launch" button to the right.

CHRIS MATTHEWS, HOST 'HARDBALL': Are you going to get back into the leadership ranks at some point?

SEN. TRENT LOTT ®, MISSISSIPPI:  You know, Chris, got to take these things one step at a time.  I‘ve been in Congress 33 years, and so when you‘re running for another term, you need to take a little time to think it through.  But in the meantime, my state just got devastated, as you know, last year by Hurricane Katrina.

We do need a lot of help.  A lot of people have helped us, but there is still work to do.  I just felt like I needed to use the experience people have given me to try to help the state.  Also, there are a lot of things in Washington I care an awful lot about Chris.

MATTHEWS: How do you keep the American people‘s attention on something like the damage from Katrina?

LOTT:  It‘s hard, but I must say that a lot of people have realized the problems we‘ve had and have come down there.  And a lot of the media.  You‘ve talked about it, Chris.  Joe Scarborough on MSNBC has really focused on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.  Robin Roberts with ABC‘s Good Morning America show, Shepherd Smith, a lot of people have talked about the fact.  Don‘t forget what happened down here, both in Louisiana but also the Mississippi Gulf Coast.

You know, we got the brunt of the hurricane itself.  So much of the damage in the New Orleans area came after the Hurricane when the levees broke.  It‘s hard to keep people focused and that‘s part of our job, to make sure that the federal government and people that have been helping us are aware that this job is not done.  We‘ve got a lot of work to do.

MATTHEWS:  Rate FEMA.

LOTT:  I‘d give FEMA a very low grade, Chris.  They‘ve been a big disappointment in the immediate aftermath and, quite frankly, right up until this day.  There are good people with FEMA, and I think the current acting head of FEMA, Mr. Paulison, is a good man.  I think we made a mistake in Congress when we put it into the bib bureaucracy of Homeland Security.

I still don‘t think they use common sense.  They are still very slow in how they are administering the programs, the debris cleanup, the temporary housing.  It‘s been a big disappointment. 

That‘s one of the reasons, Chris, why I feel like I want to stay.  I want to help make sure that we get the money we need from the federal government and that we use it properly.  And that also, I‘ll work on these federal agencies to get them to use common sense for heaven‘s sake.

We couldn‘t have made it without volunteers and faith-based groups, people who just came to our aid when we needed it most.

MATTHEWS:  Speaking of common sense, Hillary Clinton, what do you make of...she stepped in it the other day.  Went up to Harlem and went to a Black church and started talking about you Republicans running a plantation in the House of Representatives.  Do you think she‘s going to end up having to apologize for that?

LOTT:   Well, when she speaks to the Senate, she uses very moderate terms and very low modulation and is very good.  When she goes to events like this one and starts hollering and using this sort of—just, vicious kind of language, I think it really is a—you know, it doesn‘t help the discourse and I think it hurts her. 

She may wind up having to apologize but I—you know, I know, Chris, from experience, that words do have meaning.  And if you overstep the line, you know, you wind up having to apologize for it.

MATTHEWS:  Is this a problem area --  I remember Gary Hart having this problem in a different regard.  He was talking to a gay group out in California and he said, “I‘d sure rather be here than back with some solid waste dump in New Jersey.” 

Now I‘m sure there was a lot of giggles about that because it was an aesthetic kind of line.  But he was playing to a crowd he thought was very aesthetic and would like what he had to say.  But there again, you get caught pandering to a group in front of you and ignoring the bigger—the fact that everything‘s wired today.  Isn‘t that the problem you and everybody else gets into?

LOTT:  When I had my press conference in Pascagoula today, I mean, I wasn‘t just speaking to my neighbors and my constituents in Mississippi—

I mean, it was being carried by some of the national problems.  So you need to be careful what you say. 

We‘ve all fallen into that trap, Chris, where you go before some group that you really shouldn‘t, or you‘re not quite sure who they are or you use some inflammatory language that appeals to that group.  And you know, you‘ve just got to learn not to do that.  We all have to learn to not to do that, Republican and Democrat alike.

MATTHEWS:  Do you think Hillary should apologize?

MATTHEWS:  ... Southerners to white Southerners.  I mean, plantation has a particular meaning.  I mean, it has a history.  We know what a plantation is, we‘ve all seen “Gone with the Wind.”  You live in part of the country, you know what a plantation used to look like.  It‘s about slavery, it‘s about whipping people, it‘s about the old Antebellum South.  She‘s saying that‘s the way the United States Congress is run under Denny Hastert, the House of Reps.

LOTT:  You know, Chris, that‘s the kind of partisan rhetoric that has gotten us into the type of atmosphere we have in Washington now.  And both houses and in both parties.  I think the American people are tired of that.  I don‘t know if I‘m not going to call on her to apologize, I‘m frankly a little bit disappointed in her.  I think she can do better than that. 

But that‘s the kind of discourse that we—it‘s an election year, I acknowledge it.  But if we‘re ever going to go get into a more cooperative, little less real partisan mode, we have to all be a little more careful.

MATTHEWS:  Well, everybody‘s whipping up their own people.  I mean, Ray Nagin down in Louisiana is talking about chocolate, keeping his city chocolate.  I grew up in—you were in Washington when that was sort of an endearing term.  In D.C., you‘d have bumper stickers, “Chocolate City.”  Before we had all the racial division of the late ‘60s, it was considered sort of neat.

And then of course with all of the division, we all get very sensitive.  But now Ray Nagin‘s out there throwing the word out and now he‘s saying it doesn‘t mean black, it means a mixture of white and black, which is complete B.S.  He meant it was black and—is that fair enough for a guy who‘s a black mayor of a black city to say, “I want to keep this city black?”  Is that racist, or what is that?  What do you call that?

LOTT:  Well, I don‘t know.  Again, I would suggest that he didn‘t choose his words well in that speech.  I mean, he even talked about how God‘s punishing America for mistakes we‘ve made.  And you ought to go back and read the Bible where it specifically says that God‘s not going to punish the people like that.  I don‘t know where he was coming from.  I know that mayor, I‘ve met with him.  He‘s got a tough job and I wish him well. 

But one of the things that he and I and all of us had to learn, that there‘s no issue that‘s more sensitive now and hurts people‘s feelings and raises (INAUDIBLE) quicker than these—than racial issues.  And we need to all learn to be more careful.  I have had my learning that I‘ve had to go through.  And I think we need to all be careful about that.

MATTHEWS:  Let me ask you about the leadership of the Senate right now.  Do you think that Bill Frist has done a good job since you gave up the leadership?

LOTT:  Well, obviously I‘d be coming in that from a prejudiced position.

MATTHEWS:  Well that‘s what I want to hear.  I want to hear your prejudice position.  I don‘t want some objective good government thing.

LOTT:  There are some people down here who say—some people down here say we like you better not as a leader because you are freer to speak your mind the way you really see fit.

But the way, I always responded to that, he‘s got the toughest political job in Washington.  It‘s tougher than president.  When a president makes a decision, government moves, except for FEMA.  And, you know, when the speaker makes a decision, he‘s got a House Rules Committee to enforce the decision. 

The leader in the Senate of both parties has to lead by the power of persuasion.  There are very few carrots and no sticks. 

And so I‘m hesitant to be critical of him or Harry Reid, for that matter, either, because they both have a very tough job.

I would do some things differently, and I‘ve said so occasionally.  But I want him to succeed.  We got a year left in his term.  And in this term, we‘ve got a lot of work we need to do for the American people.  And if he will allow me, I‘m going to do anything I can to help him, because I want us to get the people‘s agenda done.

We can‘t do it without strong leadership at the top and without cooperation between the leaders of both parties in the Senate.

MATTHEWS:  Do you accept the fact that Mitch McConnell is in line to replace Bill Frist, when Frist retires—he‘s quitting at the end of next year?

LOTT:  Whips have not always succeeded to the leader‘s position.

The whip position is a distinctive position and I really think that, you know, you really ought to seek that position for its own value.

But he is in the—what is now considered to be the assistant majority leader position.  He‘s already been working gathering votes.  And so, you know, I think most people presume that he is in a position to move up.

MATTHEWS:  And you wouldn‘t challenge him?

LOTT:  You know, Mitch is a personal friend and we‘ve worked in—together.  We‘ve helped each other.  I‘m not inclined to challenge him.

But, you know, who knows what the situation will be a year from now or three years from now...

MATTHEWS:  Rick Santorum is in a tough re-election race.  You might have that open if that doesn‘t turn out for Rick.

LOTT:  Well, you know, right now, that‘s in the hands of the good Lord.  We‘ll see what happens. I want to be involved.  I want to be helpful.  And I want to do that wherever I can be, in or out of the leadership.  But I‘m going to be around and I hope to make it a positive influence.

MATTHEWS:  Well, I‘ll check with Ray Nagin as to what it‘s in the mind of the good Lord right now.  He‘s apparently an expert on that right now.

You‘ve announced you‘re going to seek re-election.  Are you optimistic you can win another seat?  This would be your fourth term.

LOTT:  That‘s correct.

And I‘ve served eight terms in the House, so, you know, I‘ve got a lot of good friends to support around the state.

But it‘s like every election—you got to ask for people‘s votes, you got to ask for their help, and I‘m prepared to do that.

MATTHEWS:  Where are you living now?

LOTT:  You know, our house in Pascagoula was blown and/or washed away, and we didn‘t even have a slab left because it was 10 feet up off the ground, so it‘s just a bare space on earth now.

But we have a row house there on Capitol Hill and we did have a small place outside of Jackson that we did acquire three years ago so we could be closer to our daughter and her husband and two grandchildren.

So we—unlike a lot of our neighbors in Pascagoula, we had a place where we could go and have a roof over our head.  We didn‘t have any power for a week and it took me a couple of weeks to get that place cleaned up.  But at least we did have a place here in the central part of the state, and that‘s where we spent Christmas—the first time in my wife‘s life and the first time in our married life, 41 years, we spent away from Pascagoula, Mississippi at Christmas.  It was bittersweet.

But the people down there, Chris—again, one thing I want to say, I‘ve been proud of the people in south Mississippi, along the Gulf Coast.  They‘ve got a very resilient spirit.  They‘re determined to rebuild and rebuild better.  They‘re working together.  They‘re pulling together. 

And I think everybody that has been there and has seen them, has been impressed with the determination and the ability to smile into a, you know, huge adversity.

MATTHEWS:  Can you get your house rebuilt?  Are you going to get—you‘re insured and all that?  Or how does it stand?

LOTT:  Well, I did have flood insurance and I have collected flood insurance.  But it‘s not enough to pay for the cost of our losses, of course. 

And I had a household policy that covered wind, but I‘ve been told so far by my insurance company that I didn‘t have any wind damage that‘s not credible or believable. 

So on our behalf, on a personal basis, but on behalf of a lot of other people—probably 100,000 people situated similarly to us—I am aggressively pursuing, you know, some additional recovery so we can afford to build a house.

But we will rebuild.  It‘s a beautiful spot on Earth.  But we‘ll rebuild it smaller, cheaper.  It‘ll be more of a beach-type cabin, and we won‘t have any antiques in it and we won‘t have any mementos or pictures that we‘re not willing to lose.

MATTHEWS:  You know, a lot of—you must have a feeling about this Abramoff crap that‘s going on now, because you, like a lot of other people, have made sacrifices to stay in public life.  You‘re doing it again, obviously.  You could go off and make a ton of money and you‘ve chosen public service again. 

What‘s your reaction to seeing all these headlines about people like Abramoff in these sort of—what looks bribery cases, in fact?

LOTT:  It‘s very disheartening, Chris, because I want the people to look at their elected officials in Congress and throughout the country and feel good about what we‘re trying to do.  We‘re honorable men and women and we do adhere to, you know, a set of principles and ethics.  And I—it undermines, I think, the confidence. 

You get a bad apple like this who violated the law, by the way.  Obviously he was involved in fraud and all kind of misconduct and, you know, cheating one side—working both sides of the aisle.  There are laws against that. 

And so that—but we‘ll have to go through it.  I do think there‘s some things we need to do to tighten up on lobby reform and maybe even look at some of the ethics rules.  I hope we don‘t just go crazy and wind up taking away people‘s right to petition their government.

But it‘s not a happy thing.  In fact, I‘ve been thinking for you—about writing in those book, Chris, about the leaders that I have seen in Congress that have shown real leadership and courage.  Men, women, Democrats, Republicans, House and Senate. 

And why do I want to do that?  Because there are a lot of little stories that haven‘t been told that I witnessed that need to be told so that people that know that a Charlie Rangel or a John McCain or a Ted Stevens or a Phil Gramm have done some things extraordinary in their legislative careers.

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