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Trent Lott’s rise and fall

Trent Lott has written an interesting book. Whether he realizes why is another matter.
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"Herding Cats, A Life in Politics," by Trent Lott. 297 pages. Published by ReganBooks, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.

Trent Lott has written an interesting book. Whether he realizes why is another matter.

The veteran lawmaker decided to tell his life story following the lowest moment of his career: losing the Senate majority leader post after saluting Strom Thurmond's 1948 run for president as a segregationist Dixiecrat. Two and a half years later, Lott has produced "Herding Cats, A Lifetime in Politics." And while the Mississippi senator offers few new details about his fall from grace, the book vividly sets the stage for it.

Lott portrays himself as a bubbly and relentless striver whose rah-rah style made him a star University of Mississippi cheerleader, a determined suitor who survived three brushoffs from his future wife, Tricia, and a masterful vote counter, both in the House and Senate. Yet Lott recounts numerous episodes that suggest self-deception -- as if he believes there is no unpleasantness that he cannot manage through powers of persuasion.

When Lott was young, his father was a hard drinker and a philanderer, and one night at dinner his parents raised the prospect of divorce. Lott leapt to his feet and said, "I forbid it." His parents stayed together until their son went to college, doomed to years of "chronic fussing and fighting," as Lott now acknowledges.

As a freshman member of the House Judiciary Committee during the Watergate impeachment hearings, Lott was a ferocious defender of President Richard M. Nixon -- until House Minority Leader Gerald R. Ford (R-Mich.), newly confirmed as vice president, warned him to tone it down. "I was speechless," Lott recalls. Similar loyalty to Ford predecessor Spiro T. Agnew when Agnew became entangled in a kickback scandal earned Lott a mention in George F. Will's column for his "Southern visceral sympathy for lost causes."

But Lott's biggest blind spot is in the realm of race relations. The fact is, many Americans are going to be offended when a white Southern male seems to speak longingly of segregation -- even in a lighthearted manner.

Lott insists he was only trying to flatter Thurmond on the old bull's 100th birthday, but his words were unambiguous: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, Mississippians voted for him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years either."

Harmless slip of the tongue?
What is most revealing in the book is Lott's inability to acknowledge the deeply offensive implications of his tribute. He continues to defend it as a harmless slip of the tongue and blames the media for stirring the outcry that eventually forced him to relinquish his leadership post. He writes bitterly on Page 2, "My innocent and thoughtless remark was treated by most of the media as a hanging offense."

Lott may have a point that the punishment exceeded the crime, but in the aftermath, had he engaged in less "pandering," as he describes it, and more self-examination, the outcome may well have been different.

Lott likes to say that he and Mississippi grew up together, and the best parts of his book tell of their mutual coming of age. During Lott's early childhood, his father worked as a sharecropper and the family had no indoor plumbing, the norm in postwar Mississippi. Lott recalls bolting from bed in the early morning to empty the slop jars and darting through sleet to reach the outhouse.

Some of the best years of Lott's life were spent at Ole Miss's graceful campus in Oxford. He reveled in fraternity life and joined numerous clubs and associations. In 1962, at the end of his junior year, Lott ran for student body president and lost by 60 votes. Lott speculates that an endorsement from a campus white-supremacy group may have hurt his candidacy. "But I sure wasn't one of them," he insists.

At around the same time, James Meredith, 29, an Air Force veteran, was attempting to become Ole Miss's first black student. "Although it seems impossible to believe now," Lott writes, "Meredith's imminent enrollment at Ole Miss was not a dominant issue on campus" -- even after Supreme Court Justice Hugo L. Black ordered the school to admit him. "Most people assumed, I think, that this would be a fairly benign event."

He describes himself as a "clueless" bystander who believed "segregation was wrong and that it was cruel, but we were living in a world our ancestors had created for us."

When violence broke out, after federal troops arrived on campus, Lott rounded up Sigma Nu members and barricaded the young men in their fraternity house until Meredith had registered for classes. "This is not a panty raid," he says he warned them.

Pivotal moments
Another pivotal moment, which Lott says helped to shape his conservative ideology, occurred in 1965, when Lott was an Ole Miss law student. The school had imported several Yale University professors to teach constitutional law and the intricacies of the new civil rights legislation. Lott says he found the instructors "young and personable," but "they were also liberal and had an attitude problem. They were at Ole Miss, they felt, to lead these poor, barefoot Southern boys out of the wilderness. And they were not sympathetic to countervailing points of view."

What were those countervailing points of view? Lott doesn't say. But he writes, "I had a friend who argued with these professors in his written work, and he got lousy grades. I decided not to provoke them and got decent grades."

After a brief stint at a Pascagoula law firm, Lott became the senior aide to William M. Colmer, the local Democratic congressman and powerful chairman of the House Rules Committee. Colmer had supported Thurmond's Dixiecrat presidential bid, but by the time Lott met him, Colmer "was well past his firebrand days . . . and had become more moderate on civil rights issues as each year passed."

Lott succeeded Colmer when the congressman retired, in 1972, and much of the book recounts what Lott considers the highlights from his House and Senate career.

Murray covers Congress for The Post.