Book Dishes a Lott of Dirt
Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) accuses two GOP colleagues of helping mastermind his fall from power in 2002, in a tell-all memoir set for release next week.
The Mississippi Republican charges that Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) and former Sen. Don Nickles (R-Okla.) seized on his “innocent and thoughtless remark” about former Sen. Strom Thurmond’s (R-S.C.) 1948 Dixiecrat presidential campaign to force him to resign his position as Republican leader.
Lott was just one month away from reclaiming the position of Majority Leader in 2002, a highly coveted prize following a bruising but successful midterm election. Then he told attendees of Thurmond’s 100th birthday party that the country would have been better off had it elected the South Carolinian president a half-century earlier.
It took several days for Lott’s words to stir widespread anger, but once the issue caught on, his critics charged that the Mississippian was effectively endorsing the segregationist platform Thurmond promoted during that campaign.
Lott sought to quell the charges that he was a racist by offering multiple apologies, but his fate was sealed. By Dec. 20, after Frist announced he would challenge Lott and other Republicans began lining up behind the Tennessean, the Majority Leader in waiting decided to step aside.
In the book, titled “Herding Cats: A Life in Politics,” Lott seeks to extinguish any suggestion he holds racist views. He describes his decision to abdicate his position as taking “one for the cause” and uses his personal and political history to challenge the characterization that he is a racist.
In the two-plus years since the crisis unfolded, Lott has rebounded to become an influential political tactician despite lacking the trappings of elected leadership office.
While Lott continues to work with Frist on legislative matters, it is clear the Mississippi Republican remains angry with the man he describes in his book as his former “protégé.”
“I considered Frist’s power grab a personal betrayal,” writes Lott, who claims that he had been nurturing the Tennessee Republican’s career ever since he took office in 1995.
“When I learned of his move, I felt, and still feel, that he was one of the main manipulators of the whole scenario,” Lott writes. “No other senior Senator with stature would have run against me. In fact they all took themselves out of the running because of close relationships to me. If Frist had not announced exactly when he did, as the fire was about to burn out, I would still be majority leader of the Senate today.”
As for Nickles, Lott now says he should have expected the GOP Whip to attempt to undermine his authority. Lott contends in his 302-page autobiography that “As my whip he’d made it clear he was after my job as majority leader.”
Nickles, who retired in 2004, was the first Republican Senator to publicly urge Lott to relinquish his leadership post. As the Lott imbroglio grew, Nickles released a statement to ABC News saying that the Mississippi Republican “has been weakened to the point that may jeopardize his ability to enact our agenda or to speak to all Americans.”
Reflecting on the Oklahoma Republican’s actions that December, Lott writes in his book, “So Nickles made his move, and opened the floodgates to a full-fledged challenge to my leadership. He parlayed his memo into a set of talking points for a number of Republican Senators who’d been sitting on the fence.”
Nickles did not respond on Friday to a request for comment about Lott’s charges.
Frist spokeswoman Amy Call said the Majority Leader had not seen the book and would not be able to offer a direct comment on it.
“The leader always appreciates Sen. Lott’s insights and experiences and looks forward to reading the book himself,” Call said.
In Lott’s eyes, it was not just Frist and Nickles who turned on him. It was the handful of Senators who publicly and privately refused to support him, the unnamed White House aides quoted by the major media organizations saying it was time for Lott to quit and even the conservative Republicans eager to punish him for his bipartisan effort to quickly bring then-President Bill Clinton’s 1999 impeachment trial to a close.
He specifically fingers Sens. George Allen (R-Va.), John Warner (R-Va.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) as colleagues who either abandoned him or were “less enthusiastic” about his continuing to serve as GOP leader.
Lott also chastises Joe Allbaugh, a confidant of President Bush’s who was then director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, for allowing the media to quote him as an unnamed Bush aide calling on him to step down.
“He admitted to me that he was one of the ‘Bush aides’ who were leaking statements to the press that I had to go,” Lott states in his book. “When I asked him why, he answered, ‘For the heck of it. I didn’t mean any harm. I though it was off the record.’ Really — he actually said that.”
Patti Giglio, a spokeswoman for Allbaugh, said on Friday, “He doesn’t feel there is any value in commenting until he reads the book.”
Lott also makes passing mention that alleges involvement by Karl Rove, Bush’s top political adviser, but he offers no specific criticism.
As for Bush himself, Lott describes him as “the closest to a true friend of the seven presidents I’ve known.”
Still, Lott said he did admonish the president during a private telephone call after he agreed to leave his post as Republican leader.
“He said he felt bad about rumors that the administration was undermining me, and was proud of how I had handled my decision to surrender my office,” Lott writes. “I will always remember my response clearly: ‘Thank you, Mr. President, but the rumors did hurt me, and you didn’t help when you could have. But I understand that what we are trying to do for our country is bigger than any one man — me, or even you. I knew what I had to do, so I took one for the cause.’ ”
Not all of Lott’s colleagues were against him, and the Mississippi Republican singles out Sens. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) as some of those who stood by him. He also thanks Ron Bonjean, his press secretary during the “Strom event,” for “catching all the darts, daggers, and blogs thrown at me.”
While Lott begins his book by talking about the “Strom event,” he quickly shelves the topic to devote the bulk of it to tell his personal and professional history. Sprinkled throughout, though, Lott offers readers examples of his personal and professional life that counter the allegation that he is racist.
In his professional life, Lott offers some insight into his working relationships with then-President Clinton, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and the other presidents he worked alongside. He also gives readers a window into the day-to-day life of a Congressional leader.
“Herding Cats” is published by ReganBooks and will be in bookstores Aug. 23.