Heeee’s Back: The Fall and Rise of Sen. Trent Lott

by Stuart Rothenberg May 25, 2006 · 12:02 AM EDT

Cleveland, Miss. — Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), surrounded by well-wishers and smiling faces, looked and sounded relaxed 10 days ago as he headed toward the stage of the Bologna Performing Arts Center on the campus of Delta State University.

He was having fun, or at least it certainly looked that way. It’s the way he must have been as a cheerleader and a frat rat at the University of Mississippi — energized, upbeat and ready. The only question is, “Ready for what?”

Dressed in a new seersucker suit and wearing tan Hush Puppies that resembled something singer Pat Boone might have worn 50 years ago, Mississippi’s junior Senator was the keynote speaker for the Delta Council’s 2006 annual meeting.

This wasn’t the same Trent Lott who was forced by his colleagues (with the backing of the White House) to give up the post of Senate Majority Leader because he uttered some comments intended to flatter and honor then-Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) during one of Thurmond’s many birthdays — remarks meant to be innocuous but which were interpreted by opponents and many in the media as racist and unacceptable.

Nor was it the same Trent Lott who, after his Pascagoula home had been destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, hemmed and hawed about whether he would run for re-election again in 2006, leading everyone to believe that he would retire and finally make some money.

No, this was the Trent Lott who was taken down a notch or two but has since bounced back to become relevant once again in the Senate and in Republican politics. It was the Trent Lott who decided that he would indeed seek a fourth term in the Senate later this year.

Lott’s performance at the annual meeting of the Delta Council, an area economic development organization representing the 18 Delta and part-Delta counties of Northwest Mississippi, was nothing short of terrific. Using only a few notes, he walked the audience through a number of policy challenges on Capitol Hill, from immigration and taxes to agriculture and transportation.

But it was Lott’s off-the-cuff comments about a number of the guests seated behind him on the stage that showed that he still loves the political game — and what a skilled politician he can be. He wasn’t just funny. He was also clever, and he mixed in the kind of personal references and stories that drew laughs and nods of approval from the audience.

How has the Mississippi Republican changed? Well, a few years ago, the old Trent Lott didn’t try too hard to hide his dissatisfaction with and even anger at Arizona colleague Sen. John McCain (R), who never minded leaving the Republican reservation when Lott was trying to run the Senate.

The new Trent Lott has buried the hatchet with McCain, even endorsing the Arizona reformer for the Republican presidential nomination in 2008. McCain has not yet announced his 2008 intentions, but few political observers would be surprised if he once again seeks the Republican presidential nomination again.

Lott noted that McCain’s family also came from Mississippi and that although the two “clans” fought a bit, they had plenty in common when they faced a common adversary.

Now Lott, a self-proclaimed pragmatist, apparently sees a threat coming from the Democratic Party, and he sees his old adversary McCain as the Republican who can beat Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) or whomever the Democrats nominate in 2008.

Lott’s future could well be a lot like his past, when he served as assistant leader under Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) and moved up to Senate Majority Leader in 1996.

Lott hasn’t announced that he’ll run for his party’s No. 2 post after the midterm elections, in part because that post isn’t yet vacant. But the current leading candidate for assistant leader, Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), is in serious trouble in his bid for re-election, and if he loses in November, Senate Republicans will need to find a replacement.

Still, Lott isn’t denying interest in a party leadership position, and many Republican insiders who know Lott well and are watching him closely believe that he’ll actively seek the post if it becomes vacant in November. That won’t please everyone on Capitol Hill, and that includes more than a few in his own party.

In his remarks at Delta State, Lott sounded more like a pragmatist who had tired of gridlock and wanted action on Capitol Hill than an ideologue who was satisfied with the status-quo if he couldn’t get the exact kind of legislation he preferred.

But most of all, he sounded like someone having fun, speaking his mind and letting the chips fall where they may. Of course, Lott is still very much the politician, so it would be wise to believe that those chips are falling just where he intends them to.