News & Politics

Tuesdays With Trent

The Senator Wanted to Write a Book and Needed a Writer. I Needed the Money. So We Talked--or He Talked, and Talked Some More. Here's What He Said.

I WAS IN A HOTEL ROOM LAST MAY when my cell phone rang. A book agent was on the line. He had been approached by Mississippi senator Trent Lott, who wanted to write a book, and the agency was looking for a coauthor.

The agent remembered that I had worked in Mississippi and he knew that I had been runner-up to Michael D'Orso in the competition to help Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle write his book, Like No Other Time.

There was one difference between Lott's search and the Daschle situation. Daschle's book had been sold, on the basis of a proposal he had written, to Crown Publishing Group for a $500,000 advance at a time when Daschle was considered a prospect for the 2004 presidential nomination. After the proposal was sold, Daschle searched for a writer, so there was good money in the pot. He ended up paying between $75,000 and $100,000 to D'Orso, an established coauthor who had written books with Congressman John Lewis and Senator Joe Lieberman. I had written three books, including an unauthorized biography of Justice William J. Brennan Jr., but I had never coauthored a book.

From my talks with Daschle, the agent knew I wanted to get a co authorship on my résumé. I was not, however, an admirer of Trent Lott. When I was a newspaper reporter in Mississippi, he had been a right-wing congressman from Pascagoula. I wondered how I would explain such a partnership to friends who were not Lott admirers; on the other hand, I don't like to turn down work.

After all, this was going to be Senator Lott's book. I thought I could help him in a professional way, much as a liberal DC lawyer helps big tobacco companies win cases. He needed a writer; I am a writer. His name would be on the book, not mine.

I also knew that Lott's story was interesting. Here was a man from a broken home in north Mississippi, son of an alcoholic father, who had risen to become one of the most influential men in America. In his political career, he had clawed to the top in the House and then jumped to the Senate, where he had leapfrogged more senior colleagues to become leader of his party. Then, in a precipitous fall, he had lost it all.

Whatever I thought of the man or his politics, it could be a hell of a story. I figured that the pairing of a conservative senator with a more liberal writer might produce something different from the average self-serving political memoir.

I told the agent I'd call Lott.

WHILE I WAS ON HOLD WAITING for the senator to come on the line, I had to listen to several minutes of John Philip Sousa marches. When Lott came on I told him I had enjoyed it. He was pleased. Finding the music and setting it up had been hard, he said–the phone people didn't get a lot of requests from senators to have John Philip Sousa on the line. He invited me to his office. After I hung up, I realized that I hadn't said much. As I would learn, once Lott starts talking, he's off to the races.

I sent him a list of references. I wanted to make sure he understood that I wasn't exactly a conservative. My journalistic background included a three-year stint at the Delta Democrat Times, Hodding Carter III's liberal daily newspaper in Greenville, Mississippi. Carter and his wife, Patt Derian, both served in the Jimmy Carter administration and are friends of mine.

I also gave him a list of conservatives who could vouch for the fact that while I've expressed liberal sentiments on TV, I have always tried to be fair to conservatives. Many people think reporters with liberal predilections spend all their time promoting an agenda, but this is mostly not so. In my 25 years as a reporter, I have bent over backward to present the conservative side fairly. On the list I gave Lott were the names of former Whitewater prosecutor Ken Starr and Solicitor General Ted Olson. I believed either would say that I wouldn't let politics get in the way of writing the best story I could.

When I entered Lott's office, he was on the phone with Vice President Dick Cheney talking about whether to allow Ahmed Chalabi's forces to enter Baghdad. Chalabi was hunkered down outside the Iraqi capital and couldn't get US permission to enter the city, where he hoped to set up a provisional government.

Lott had placed the initial call and now was telling Cheney he was surprised the Vice President would return a call to an "old reprobate" like himself. Talking a mile a minute, Lott was relating, and not without pleasure, the problems his successor, Bill Frist, was having getting votes to pass the President's tax-cut package. Lott said GOP members were sorry Trent wasn't around now, when they needed someone who could count and orchestrate a vote.

In that first visit, I saw how distraught Lott was at no longer being Republican leader of the United States Senate.

"A lot of people around here are wishing right now they had me back," Lott told Cheney a second time.

WHEN HE GOT OFF THE PHONE, Lott turned his attention to my résumé. The first thing he noted was my association with Hodding Carter III–"or, as we call him," he said, "Hodding the Turd."

The comment left me speechless. I wanted to leave, but I had just arrived. It was the most uncomfortable moment in my association with Lott.

I was seated in a chair next to his desk, which had only a telephone on it. "I like a clean desk," he said.

I tried to rationalize how my political thinking might work to the advantage of a book. Maybe there was an angle for a different kind of tale–conservative Southern senator links up with a liberal Southern writer, something like Mitch Albom's bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie. It could be Mondays With Trent.

Lott, it turned out, didn't have a clue what he wanted to say. He only knew that he wanted to write a book. He indicated that it was "payback time" for some of his enemies. Several times he mentioned Senator Orrin Hatch's book, Square Peg. That Hatch had managed to write and sell a book seemed to gall him.

"In all modesty," he said, "what I would have to say has to be a lot more interesting than something from Orrin Hatch!"

TO SELL A BOOK TO A PUBLISHER, Lott and I had to come up with a proposal. We went over some of the concepts I had jotted down. I thought it was interesting that the young Congressman Lott had served on the House Judiciary Committee's panel on the impeachment of Richard Nixon and in the Senate as a juror in Bill Clinton's impeachment.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, whose office is next door to Lott's, on the fourth floor of the Russell building, had been a Democratic staff lawyer on the same House impeachment panel on which Lott had served. I asked him whether he had known her then. Lott said he hadn't paid much attention to her, remembering only that "she was butt ugly." He allowed as how she looks better now.

As we talked about Newt Gingrich, I remembered that Lott had outranked Gingrich in the House. But Lott said he would not have become Speaker because he never would have treated then-GOP House leader Bob Michel the way Gingrich had.

Lott believed he was more decent than Newt, and besides, he and Michel had belonged to the same college fraternity, Sigma Nu. And they both enjoyed singing. Lott said he had liked and admired Michel. Gingrich, Lott said, had seen him only as another impediment to his grab for power.

Whether Lott might have become Speaker before Gingrich became hypothetical in 1988, when Lott left the House to run for the Mississippi Senate seat long held by John Stennis, who was retiring.

Just six years later, at the end of his first term, Lott decided to challenge Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson to be chief whip to Senate Republican leader Bob Dole. Supported by several of his former House colleagues who had been elected to the Senate in 1994, Lott squeaked by Simpson, 27-26.

"I know people thought it was presumptuous of a senator with so little tenure to jump over the leadership line," Lott told me. "But I figured politics is like baseball. You either make the play or you don't."

It was a bitter fight, but Simpson was gracious in defeat. He sent Lott a note saying they should talk. When Lott arrived in Simpson's office, Simpson used the imagery of an Indian shaman, telling Lott that Bob Dole was "like an eagle with a wide wingspan who flies and soars alone."

Lott recalled Simpson's advice–go about your business and don't count on Dole for support. "Simpson was exactly right," Lott said. "Until the day he left the Senate to run for president two years later, I had no idea what he thought of the job I had done."

WITH DOLE'S DEPARTURE IN THE summer of 1996, Lott became majority leader. After just eight years in the Senate, and with Democrat Bill Clinton in the White House, he felt he was leader of the Republican Party. What Lott told me next impressed me as much as anything I would learn about him.

I had long heard athletes complain about younger stars who come into a sport knowing nothing of its past heroes. Lott, it turned out, was an astute student of senate history. When Lott realized he was going to be majority leader of the United States Senate, he embarked on a study to figure out how to be the most effective leader he could be. He plunged into the memoirs of his predecessors–Howard Baker, George Mitchell, Lyndon Johnson, Robert Taft, and Mike Mansfield.

The one leader he didn't want to emulate was Bob Dole. Lott found the leadership style he felt most comfortable with in the recollections of Mike Mansfield. The irony had nothing to do with Mansfield's being a liberal Democrat and Lott a conservative Republican. Mansfield was famous for being taciturn–he once had set a record on Meet the Press for most questions answered with "yup" and "nope." Lott, to be blunt, does not shut up.

But Mansfield believed in sharing information. He had opened up the Senate leadership office after the era of LBJ, who had believed that information was power and that giving it away meant losing power.

Like Johnson, Dole had kept much to himself. Like Mansfield, Lott wanted to share information with his colleagues.

The trick of being the leader, Lott told me, was trying to make 99 independent souls act in concert under Senate rules that encourage anarchy. He told me an old Senate joke: There are only two rules in the US Senate–exhaustion and unanimous consent. "And the second rule only applies when the first has been reached."

Lott's reign as Republican leader had lasted until the spring of 2001. After the 2000 election, Republicans and Democrats held 50 seats each. Vice President Cheney, who acts as the president of the Senate, cast the tie-breaking vote to keep the Republicans in power.

IN MAY 2001, WHEN VERMONT REPUB- lican Jim Jeffords became an independent and agreed to vote with the Democrats, Lott's tenure as majority leader came to a halt.

It was a shock. Lott and Jeffords were old friends; they once had adjacent seats on the House floor. And like Lott's fraternity brother Bob Michel, Jeffords liked to sing. He and Lott were members of a quartet, the Singing Senators, with John Ashcroft and Larry Craig. They had sung at fundraisers and rallies in Jeffords's home state. Lott said the only reason they had kept Jeffords in the group was to keep him in the Republican Party. "The last five years his singing was so bad, we had to turn off his microphone!" Lott told me. We both howled with laughter.

Some Republicans have told me that Lott's failure to hold the slim Republican majority together had as much to do with his demise as GOP leader as the comments he made at Strom Thurmond's birthday party, held December 5, after the Republicans regained a majority in the 2002 elections.

As for the birthday party, Lott told me he hadn't wanted to go in the first place. He said he knew Bob Dole would be there, and because of Dole's role as a pitchman for Viagra–not to mention Thurmond's reputation as a ladies' man–he knew there would be a lot of sex jokes. He worried that his mother back in Mississippi might watch the event on C-SPAN.

Lott's staff also worried about his going to a high-profile gathering where he'd be making unscripted remarks–they knew that his mouth sometimes moves faster than his brain.

It was a few days after the birthday party that Democrats like Georgia Congressman John Lewis protested Lott's remark that the nation would have been better off had Dixiecrat candidate Thurmond been elected president in 1948.

Some critics went so far as to say that Lott had supported Thurmond in 1948. But Lott then was only seven years old. Lott told me that in 1968, when he was old enough to vote, he had supported Richard Nixon, not George Wallace. Lott said that proved that he is not a racist.

Whether his downfall was the result of Democratic pressure tactics or knives plunged into him by members of his own party is a matter of dispute. It is clear that members of his own party did not spring to Lott's defense.

My take on the birthday-party incident was that Lott had been done in by fellow Republicans who felt that Daschle could take the measure of Lott most days of the week. Those Republicans still blamed Lott for the Jeffords fiasco.

As he talked about his colleagues, he divided them into two groups–those who had called him with words of support, and those who had driven the knife into his back.

One of the politicians to whom Lott was most appreciative was Bill Clinton. The former president had appeared on the Larry King show and said that Lott had been treated badly. Clinton said he thought Lott had been made "a scapegoat" for the GOP on racial issues and noted that "when Trent Lott was majority leader at least we passed the Balanced Budget Act that had the biggest increase in child healthcare since Medicare."

The similarities between Lott and Clinton seemed eerie. Both had alcoholic fathers who died in car accidents and both had strong-willed mothers. Both grew up in rural Southern towns and became shrewd political creatures in their home states. They were almost two sides of the same coin. It was obvious that in many respects Lott admired Clinton, even as he detested Clinton's personal life.

MY MEETINGS WITH LOTT–WE MET four times in his office, with his assistant Susan Irby in the room–always ended abruptly. As he talked, Irby would say that he had another appointment, and he would stop in midsentence. There was no goodbye or mention of when we might meet again. He was on to other business. I would linger a few moments to see what else I might learn, then make my way out through the usually crowded anteroom.

A few days would pass, and I would get a message summoning me back. On a few occasions, he would think about something we had talked about and give me a call.

Once he called me at home to tell me a story about the former president. Clinton was in the Capitol one day, and an advance man popped into Lott's office and "asked my staff if the president could use my commode."

Lott wasn't in his office, and Clinton was ushered into Lott's bathroom, where he came face to face with a cartoon about duck hunting in Mississippi. Lott wanted to extend duck-hunting season, which he had argued sometimes ended before the ducks had arrived. The cartoon's caption read, "Imagine if intern hunting season closed before there were interns in the White House."

When Lott returned to his office and realized Clinton had seen the cartoon, he was upset. Lott called the President and apologized. The next day Lott received a box of cigars from Clinton, along with a new cartoon. This one showed Clinton tying the Republican leadership up in knots. Clinton had written on the cartoon, "Trent, thanks for offering me equal time–well, at least some space on your GOP cartoon wall."

Not long after that call, I was summoned back to the Russell building. Lott seemed frustrated that he had no major part to play in the political activity going on around him. He began to list all the things he had done for 51-year-old Tennessee senator Bill Frist, who had taken over as majority leader. Lott had made Frist spokesman for the Senate during the anthrax crisis, when the Bush administration seemed to be issuing contradictory statements. Frist's performance raised his national profile. Lott ticked off several other jobs he had arranged for Frist or supported him for.

"But when my moment of political crisis arrived," Lott said, "Bill Frist was nowhere to be seen, except to put himself forward as a candidate to replace me."

Lott looked at me sternly and said, "There is a word for a man like Bill Frist." He hesitated, waiting for me to say the word.

"Ingrate," Lott said.

COMMENTS LIKE THAT AND THE ONE about turning off Jim Jeffords's microphone convinced me that we could write an interesting book. Lott was a true eccentric. I wanted to keep Lott on the track of taking on everyone, members of his party included. Once in a while he would go off on a tangent, saying that the loss of his leadership post was the result of his being persecuted because he is a Christian.

A more salient political observation had to do with his role in the GOP's winning control of the Senate in 2002. Lott told me that a backlash against the partisan nature of the speeches at Senator Paul Wellstone's memorial service in late October 2002 had had an impact on the races in South Carolina, Missouri, and Georgia. "If I had not gone to Minnesota to honor a liberal colleague, the Republican Party might well not have won back the Senate," he said. "I later told my wife, Trish, that the results made it well worth the trip. Anytime I can turn the results of four Senate races around by just getting booed, that is time well spent."

The better I knew him, the more good qualities I sensed. One day one of his granddaughters came in, and Lott began showing her all the funny caps he had on a hat stand. He had a zany, boyish quality. Once he was midstory when he realized he had to leave the office to have his picture taken with a school group. He disappeared into the corridor, still talking. About 20 minutes later I heard him coming back down the hall, finishing his story before he was even back in the room.

I figured that his penchant for talking all the time would be good for a collaboration. I wouldn't have to goad him. And once he started, he would say almost anything. From my perspective, that was good.

I BEGAN WRITING A PROPOSAL, GIVING IT the working title "Herding Cats," an expression Lott used in characterizing his job of leading the Senate. With my interest in the history of the Senate and Lott's sense of the history of his position, I figured we could write a pretty good book.

The agents had suggested repeatedly that I steer Lott toward writing a book about the Republican Party and race. But Lott didn't want to write about race. He doesn't think that Southerners had anything to apologize for. Several times, when I mentioned the concept, he replied, "I ain't writing no civil-rights book."

The idea of exploring how this unusual man became the leader of the United States Senate fascinated me. He never stays up past 9 o'clock–he turns down national television appearances that go past his bedtime. As soon as he gets home he puts on his pajamas; he usually has dinner served to him in bed. It is true that he hates for different parts of his meal to touch, and he eats each item in order. He is a neatness freak, proud of his organizational skills. Organization made him what he is–or was, one of the best vote-counters in Congressional history. There were times, he confessed, when he thought about the presidency.

Ultimately, I put together the best anecdotes and stories. Conservative books were supposed to be hot, so the agents urged me to emphasize Lott's conservatism. Get rid of "Herding Cats," they told me, and get "conservative" into the title.

This was a little bit at cross-purposes with the kind of proposal I was trying to write, but I tried to accommodate their requests. I rewrote the title and subtitle to reflect a more conservative slant and submitted the proposal.

It didn't immediately attract any takers. One editor at a conservative publishing house told the agents that Lott had been buried by moderate conservatives, and the editor had no desire to play a role in the Mississippian's resurrection.

Lott was troubled by the lack of interest. He called to ask if we should try a new agent. He asked about the lawyer/agent Robert Barnett. I told him Barnett billed by the hour, and if the book didn't sell, Lott could be stuck with a big legal bill. Lott said we should talk to him anyway–he felt that since Barnett was a lawyer, once we dangled money in front of him, he would do what we wanted.

Lott called me another time after he had talked with Lynne Cheney, the Vice President's wife, who had recommended high-powered agent Lynn Chu, who had represented Gingrich. I didn't know anything about Chu, but I told Lott he already had a top agent in Sterling and Lord's Flip Brophy.

That was my last conversation with Lott. In early September, Judith Regan of HarperCollins bought the Lott book for a $200,000 advance. The only catch, I was told in a call from one of the agents involved, was that Regan didn't want me as coauthor. He said Regan had discerned in my proposal that I "didn't like him enough."

Yes, there were some things about Lott I didn't like. But we weren't talking about getting married. I had thought we were going to have a professional relationship.

I was a little surprised that I never heard from Lott again. After being unceremoniously dumped as leader by his own caucus, Lott had treated me the same way.

I never found out exactly why I had been cut out of the book–or whether my proposal is still the working idea. My suspicions are that Regan, a close friend of Gingrich's, didn't like the direction I had taken, particularly in pitting a gentlemanly Lott against a vindictive Gingrich. But since I haven't spoken to Lott, Regan, or the principal agent in the deal since the proposal was sold, I can't say for sure.

I hear that they hired a Mississippi writer to work with Lott. I'll be eager to see how the book turns out. I still think there's a fascinating story in Trent Lott, even if I won't be the one writing it.