Trent Lott

views updated May 21 2018

Trent Lott

Trent Lott (born 1941) has served in the United States government for over three decades. He was elected to both houses of the United States congress and served subsequent terms as a member from the state of Mississippi.

A U.S. Senator from Mississippi, Trent Lott is a major political figure in the nation's capitol. He first came to Washington as a Democratic congressional aide in the early 1960s. Known for his conservative views, however, Lott served as a Republican in both the House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate. Lott was recognized for his leadership skills in Congress and was able to organize support for important issues among both 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." A skillful politician, the U.S. Senator from Mississippi 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. As an only child, Trent received the full attention and love of his parents. His father, Chester, worked as a shipyard worker who later tried his hand in the furniture business. In a U.S. News & World Report interview with Gloria Borger, Lott described his father as "handsome and outgoing, and I always thought he might actually run for office someday."

Lott's mother, Iona, was a schoolteacher and bookkeeper. Iona Lott recalled to Time contributor Dan Goodgame, "People used to say an only child would be spoiled and selfish. And I was determined he wouldn't be that way." She insisted that he share everything, even the pony she and Lott's father gave him before he was ten. Lott was exposed to politics at any early age, as one grandfather was a justice of the peace, and the other grandfather a county supervisor. Lott also had an uncle who was a tax assessor and a state senator.

The family moved to Pascagoula when Lott was in the seventh grade. He adapted to the new location quickly and wasn't afraid to participate in a wide range of activities. During his school years, he played tuba in the band and was a member of the drama club. He also worked part-time at a local rootbeer stand. Among his classmates, Lott was popular and well-respected. In high school, he was elected president of the drama club, president of the student body, homecoming king, most popular, most likely to succeed, and most polite. Goodgame quoted a high school friend who recalled that Lott found time for everyone "from shy girls to the guys we would describe these days as gang members."

With money earned from summer jobs and support from his parents, Lott entered the University of Mississippi (Ole Miss) in the fall of 1959. While at Ole Miss, Lott had his first real experience at politics. His freshman year, he pledged the Sigma Nu social 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 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, protected by armed U.S. marshals, enrolled at Ole Miss. The small group was confronted by rock-throwing students and non-student protestors in violent demonstrations. By the time the violence ended, two people had been killed and many others injured and arrested. Lott worked to keep Sigma Nu fraternity members from taking part. At the same time, he used his campus influence to call for peaceful campus integration. In National Review, Rich Lowry quoted Lott as saying, "Yes, you could say that I favored segregation then. The main thing was, I felt the Federal Government had no business sending in troops to tell the state what to do."

Graduating with a bachelor's degree in Public Administration in the spring of 1963, Lott enrolled in the Ole Miss law school. He subsidized his graduate education with a federal student loan and also obtained a job with the university's recruitment office. Later, he was able to work for the alumni association as a fund raiser, a position that enabled him to make valuable political connections throughout his native state.

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 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.

After graduating from the Ole Miss law school, 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. Tricia Lott explained to Lowry that the family went to Washington "to stay a couple of years and see if we liked it." Political skills learned at Ole Miss in organizing and influencing people earned Lott a reputation as an effective and able congressional aide.

Elected to House of Representatives

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 Colmer's endorsement and support. According to Lowry, Lott explained his party switch by vowing to "fight against the ever increasing efforts of the so-called liberals to concentrate more power in the government in Washington." Lott 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 this 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 cover-up 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 to 1989. 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 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 which included several highway projects in his home district.

Joined United States Senate

When the Mississippi Democratic Senator, John Stennis, retired in 1988, Lott announced that he would seek the vacant Senate seat. He won the Senate position 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 briefing to Lott on crucial votes. One of the regional whips was also tasked 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. During 1997 budget negotiations, Richard Stevenson, writing in the New York Times, described him as "Trent Lott the bad cop" and as "Trent Lott the good cop." Stevenson reported that Lott's message to both parties was, "I'm going to urge that we not waste time talking about what we disagree on. Let's see where we can find some commonality, where we can begin to come up with agreements that will help the quality of life for all Americans." 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 Majority Leader position. His organizational and political skills were rewarded, and he was elected Senate Majority Leader on June 13, 1996.

Campaign financing became the focus of national attention after the re-election of President Clinton in 1996. With reports of improper fund-raising activities by the Democrats, many Republicans called for in-depth investigations of campaign practices. While some called for major campaign reforms, Lott had other views. In an interview with New York Times contributor Katharine Seelye, Lott described his position on this issue, commenting that "I support people being involved in the political process….I think for them to have the opportunity to do that is the American way."

The Senator's stance 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 an internet home page stating his position on key political and national issues. In regards to 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's personal beliefs reflect those of his constituency, and his election to both houses of Congress show his successful representation of the people in his home district and home state. In Congress, his ability to mobilize his fellow Representatives and Senators in support of key legislation was recognized with prominent positions in both houses-as Minority Whip in the House of Representatives, and in the Senate as Majority Whip and later Senate Majority Leader. Lott 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.

Further Reading

National Review, June 30, 1997, pp. 20-23.

New York Times, February 8, 1997; February 21, 1997.

Time, March 10, 1997, pp. 38-39.

U.S. News & World Report, February 24, 1997, pp. 22-24.

Direct Line with Paul Weyrich (live broadcast on radio station KIUSA), December 3, 1996.

Issue Positions, (November 10, 1997).

About this article

Trent Lott

All Sources -
Updated Aug 24 2016 About content Print Topic