Chester Trent Lott
Trent Lott has served the U.S. government for over three decades. He was elected to both houses of the U.S. Congress and served subsequent terms as a member from the state of Mississippi. Comments suggesting his endorsement of segregationist views resulted in an uproar that led to his resignation as the Senate Majority Leader in December 2002.
As a U.S. Senator from Mississippi, Trent Lott has been a major political figure in the nation's capitol. He first came to Washington as a Democratic congressional aide in the early 1960s. Lott is best-known for his conservative views, having served as a Republican in both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. He was recognized for his leadership skills in Congress and was able to organize support for important issues among Republicans and Democrats. Paul Weyrich, a radio news commentator, once described Lott "as a wily Southerner. He likes to make deals, but sometimes, when he feels a great principle is at stake, he can be tough as nails." Lott was elected by fellow senators as Senate majority leader on December 3, 1996.
Born on October 9, 1941, in Grenada County, Mississippi, Chester Trent Lott moved with his family to the costal town of Pascagoula. His father, also named Chester, was a shipyard worker who later tried his hand in the furniture business. In a U.S. News & World Report interview, Lott described his father as "handsome and outgoing, and I always thought he might actually run for office someday."
Lott entered the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in the fall of 1959. While at Ole Miss, Lott had his first real experience in politics. During his freshman year, he pledged the Sigma Nu fraternity. While he participated in Sigma Nu activities, Lott also made many friends among members of other fraternities and independent student groups. Eventually, he was elected as president of both Sigma Nu and the university's interfraternity council. Cheerleaders at Ole Miss were also elected positions, and running for cheerleader provided Lott with another opportunity to gain political skills in forming political blocks, cutting deals and doing door-to-door precinct work.
No African-American students attended the University of Mississippi when Lott first entered the school. During Lott's senior year, on September 30, 1962, Air Force veteran JAMES MEREDITH enrolled at Ole Miss, protected by armed U.S. MARSHALS. The small group was confronted by rock-throwing students and non-student protestors in violent demonstrations. By the time the violence ended, two people were dead and many others were injured and arrested. Lott worked to keep Sigma Nu fraternity members from taking part.
However, four decades after Lott graduated from Ole Miss, evidence surfaced that Lott had helped to lead a successful battle to prevent blacks from joining his fraternity. Former CNN President Tom Johnson, a Sigma Nu member at the University of Georgia, told Time magazine, "Trent was one of the strongest leaders in resisting the INTEGRATION of the national fraternity in any of the chapters." Due to the strong resistance among southern chapters, Sigma Nu remained segregated during that period.
Graduating with a bachelor's degree in public administration in the spring of 1963, Lott enrolled in the Ole Miss law school. While Lott attended law school, the VIETNAM WAR was expanding in scope and troop commitments. Like other college students Lott received a student deferment from the draft. By the time he had graduated from law school in 1967, Lott had married Patricia (Tricia) Thompson of Pascagoula and, under SELECTIVE SERVICE rules, obtained a hardship exemption due to the birth of their first child, also named Chester.
Lott and his family returned to Pascagoula. For a brief period, Lott worked in a private law firm, leaving after less than a year, when he was offered a top staff job by Congressman William M. Colmer, a Mississippi Democrat. The Lott family moved to Washington, D.C., in 1968. Political skills learned at Ole Miss in organizing and influencing people earned Lott a reputation as an effective and able congressional aide. When Congressman Colmer announced his retirement from the House of Representatives in 1972, Lott announced his candidacy as a Republican to seek the vacant office. Lott was able to win Comer's endorsement and support. He had a well-organized and tireless campaign. With the aid of the landslide re-election of President RICHARD NIXON, he was able to win the House seat with a vote margin of 55 percent.
Arriving in Washington as a freshman Representative, Lott was appointed to membership on the House Judiciary Committee. As the youngest member of the committee, Lott became involved in the 1974 hearings to impeach President Nixon. The president had been implicated in the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters at an office complex called WATERGATE. After the president released tape recordings and transcripts indicating his involvement and a coverup of the crime, Lott reversed his position as a staunch supporter and joined others in the call for the president's resignation, which occurred less than a week later.
Although Lott had vowed to fight against increased government controls from his seat in the House, he actually supported more federal spending for entitlement programs, farm subsidies, public works projects, and the military. During his 16-year tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, Lott was never credited with authoring any major legislation. However, he won praise for his work on tax and budget reform. He was an active member of the House, and served on the powerful House Rules Committee from 1975-89. With the support of his fellow Representatives, Lott was elected and served as minority whip from 1981-89. As minority whip, he was the second ranking Republican in the House of Representatives. He was also named chair of the Republican National Convention's platform committees in 1980 and 1989. Lott, however, did not always support the legislative agenda of his political party. When President RONALD REAGAN proposed a tax-reform bill in 1985, Lott used his political power as minority whip to oppose the measure. Two years later, Lott joined with Democrats to override a presidential VETO of a highway spending bill that included several highway projects in his home district.
When the Mississippi Democratic Senator John Stennis retired in 1988, Lott announced that he would seek the vacant Senate seat. He won with a 54-percent majority. As a Senator, Lott continued to focus his political talents on building coalitions and was appointed as a member of the Ethics Committee. He was later appointed as a member of the powerful Senate Budget Committee. Continuing his climb through the ranks of the Senate, Lott was elected as the secretary of the Senate Republican Conference in 1992. In 1994, he won the election for Senate majority whip by a one-vote margin, making him the first person to be elected whip in both houses of Congress.
Lott's experiences as House minority whip helped him to establish a highly-organized whip system in the Senate. Individual members of Congress were drafted to organize and track colleagues on a regional basis. These regional whips provided daily briefings to Lott on crucial votes. One of the regional whips was also assigned to be on the Senate floor at all times. Lott's ability to work with both parties helped to end what was described in the popular press as budget gridlock. When the Senate majority leader, BOB DOLE, announced his plans to retire from the Senate in order to run for president, Lott used his well-controlled whip organization to campaign for the vacant leadership position. His organizational and political skills were rewarded, and he was elected senate majority leader on June 13, 1996.
The Senator's stances on other major issues facing the nation were widely known. He articulated his views on numerous radio and television interview shows. He also took advantage of the electronic media and maintained a website that stated his position on key political and national issues. On the issue of a balanced national budget, Lott declared, "I understand the concerns regarding the Balanced Budget Amendment and want to assure you that I do not take amending our Constitution lightly. However, having watched many futile attempts to reduce the deficit through legislation, I am convinced that an amendment to our Constitution is necessary." Lott also described his position concerning prayer in public schools on this site: "I have consistently advocated strong legislative action in support of the rights of students who wish to participate in voluntary prayer in their schools."
Lott was re-elected as Senate majority leader in 2002. However, at a retirement party for Senator STROM THURMOND, Lott praised Thurmond's 1948 segregationist's campaign for president, suggesting that the nation would have been better off if Thurmond had been elected. The comments, which Lott claimed were lighthearted and intended as a complement to Thurmond, soon became the center of a media frenzy and serious debate among members of Congress. President GEORGE W. BUSH called the comments "offensive" and "wrong." Lott apologized on a number of occasions, but to no avail. Both Democrat and Republican members of Congress criticized the remarks, including his friends in the Senate.
A number of media sources reviewed prior public comments by Lott and discovered that he had made similar remarks in the past. In fact, in 1980, he made a very similar claim endorsing Thurmond after Thurmond had made a speech in support of Ronald Reagan, who was then a candidate for president. In December 2002, Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) claimed that he had enough votes to replace Lott as Senate majority leader. However, Lott resigned from the position before any vote took place.
Lott retained his seat in the Senate, but the events in 2002 and early 2003 have clouded the public's view of him. In Congress, his ability to mobilize his fellow representatives and senators in support of key legislation was recognized with prominent positions in both houses. He also has the distinction of being the first Southerner to be House minority whip, and the first person to be elected whip in both houses of Congress. Nevertheless, his reputation and legacy have been tarnished, and his comments will likely follow him for some time to come.
Thornton, Leslie T. 2003. "Race and the Republican Soul." Legal Times 26 (January 6).
Tumulty, Karen. 2002. "Trent Lott's Segregationist College Days." Time. Available online at <www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,399310,00.html>.