Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Trent's lot in life

As he engineers his abrupt departure from the U.S. Senate, perhaps with an eye toward cashing in on his connections and scoring a golden-parachute deal in the lobbying industry, lame duck Republican leader Trent Lott is winning plaudits in the mainstream press for his frequent willingness to work with Democrats across the aisle.

But that's only part of his legacy. His lot in life is that he turned off a lot of people across the political spectrum, which pretty much guarantees that his political passing will not be universally mourned.

It is sometimes suggested that his now-infamous praise of Strom Thurmond's segregationist past was merely an aberration, a transient moment that should not be allowed to define Lott's career. (At a birthday party for Strom in December 2002, Lott had waxed nostalgic about the old guy's 1948 pro-segregation presidential campaign. Referring to his fellow Mississippians, Lott said: "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.") But this outburst was not an aberration; rather, it was part of a pattern.

Trent Lott epitomized the post-'60s surge of Republican stength in the South. That surge was made possible because white southern Democrats, fearing or resenting the influx of black votes into their party in the wake of the civil rights movement, took refuge in the GOP. Lott, as one of the first elected Mississippi Republicans, successfully surfed that wave all the way to Washington.

And he had long displayed his sympathies. As a college student at Ole Miss, at the peak of the '60s civil rights movement, he led a campaign opposing the integration of his fraternity. As a congressman, he voted against renewal of the Voting Rights Act (the law that had enfranchised millions of blacks in the South), and opposed establishing a national holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Years later, as a senator, he was still giving speeches to the Council of Conservative Citizens, the successor group to the segregationist White Citizens' Councils; as he told one gathering in 1992, "The people in this room stand for the right principles and the right philosophy." He kept showing up at those gatherings even though the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP, and the Anti-Defamation League had all identified the CCC as a hate group.

That's the context for Lott's praise of Strom, and it's worth remembering that many conservatives were nearly as furious as the civil-rights activists. Lott was widely assailed on the right; as commentator Jonah Goldberg wrote at the time, Lott's "idiocy" was "indefensible morally, intellectually, and politically....It (does) not seem intellectually risky for most conservatives to denounce Lott, because we feel no allegiance to the racism of the past. We could be just as outraged as sincere liberals."

And, for many conservatives today, the Strom affair is merely one item on their list of grievances. They have long viewed Lott as a sellout to the cause; as the popular blog redstate.com remarked yesterday, "Trent Lott long ago stopped being useful...He hates conservatives. He hates most anything other than establishment Republican ideals of entrenched power and earmarks."

Speaking of earmarks...Conservatives who believe in balanced budgets and small government have long identified Lott as a hypocrite who talks a good game about reducing the size of the federal behemoth - while, in practice, relentlessly larding the federal budget with special-interest pork projects for the folks back home. (These projects, called earmarks, are slipped into bills often in the dead of night, in the hopes that nobody notices.) One classic Lott maneuver occurred last year, when he stuck a $700 million earmark - reportedly the largest in history - onto a defense spending bill, with aim of financing the rerouting of a CSX freight line on the Gulf Coast, thereby making it easier for Mississippi developers to build new casinos.

Writing back in 2001, conservative commentator Ramesh Ponnuru framed the problem: "Lott's strategic flaw is his narrowness of vision....A senator who is avidly pursuing pork is not a senator who is likely to have a grand strategy for advancing the conservative cause or to be an effective advocate for that strategy." And, around that same time, veteran conservative activist Paul Weyrich complained, "I don't think anybody has disappointed me more in public life."

And speaking of Lott's fealty to "entrenched power," is it really mere coincidence that he is leaving the Senate shortly before a lobbying reform bill becomes the law of the land? (By the way, Lott was one of only 14 Republican senators to vote against that reform bill.) If he quit his seat in 2008, with the law in effect, he'd have to wait two years before fattening the wallet. But if he quits now, before the new "revolving door" provision kicks in, he'd only have to wait one year.

When asked about this yesterday, he insisted that the new law didn't play "a big role" in his thinking - a verbal loophole through which you could drive a Hummer. Indeed, his fondness for corporate lobbyists is well documented. In 2006, he led all current lawmakers as the most frequent flyer on corporate jets (typically, tobacco giant UST, and BellSouth), tallying 18 trips - and 123 between 2001 and 2006. And life on K Street would be a comfortably family affair, since his own son, Chester, is already a lobbyist. Or he could simply opt for "consulting," which on paper is a notch away from official lobbying.

Either way, it beats being doomed to four more years as a member of the Senate minority party, and it would pay a lot better, too. Such are the ways of Washington today. When you lose clout, you can always cash in.

It also seems fitting that Lott's interim replacement would be chosen by Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, a former Washington lobbyist himself (at the still-named Barbour, Griffith & Rogers). It's precisely this kind of incestuousness that has soured so many conservatives on their elected leaders. Which is why the reaction to Lott is basically, "Don't let the revolving door hit you on the way out."


Speaking of Senate entrenchment, I noticed a report this morning that Edward Kennedy will receive an $8-million advance for his memoirs, due for publication in 2010. The report contained this sentence: "Mr. Kennedy...is expected to write candidly about his personal history, including the 1969 Chappaquiddick accident in which he drove off a bridge in Martha's Vineyard, resulting in the death of Mary Jo Kopechne, a former member of Senator Robert F. Kennedy's staff."

Here's what I plan to do. Assuming that a review copy doesn't land in my mailbox in 2010, I'll go to a bookstore and look up the Chappaquiddick passages. If the author fails to "candidly" address, for the first time, whether he was in fact drunk behind the wheel; why he was leaving the Vineyard party with the young woman (conveniently without his driver); why he somehow failed to notice that he had taken a 90-degree turn onto a bumpy dirt road, instead of staying on the asphalt road that led to the ferry (where he was supposedly taking her); why he failed to notice all this, given the fact that he knew those roads well; why he failed to call the police for help after swimming to safety while Kopechne remained trapped in his car; why he instead consulted solely with his closest political aides in secret; why he failed to report the accident until after the car and dead girl were discovered 10 hours later...if Kennedy fails to advance our sketchy understanding of all these issues, then I'll deem his book unworthy of purchase.