Trent Lott Returns to the Spotlight with Whip Win

Senate Republican leaders met behind closed doors Wednesday and chose Mississippi's Trent Lott as Minority Whip. Lott stepped down from the position of majority leader four years ago after making racially insensitive comments.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Now to the Senate, where one Republican is getting a second chance at leadership. Yesterday Trent Lott was picked as minority whip. The vote amounted to a political rehabilitation after an infamous fall from grace.

Here's NPR's David Welna.

DAVID WELNA: Coming out of the rarely used Old Senate Chamber, six Republican senators who had been chosen by secret ballot to lead their colleagues stepped up to a bevy of microphones and Klieg lights. Kentucky's Mitch McConnell, who just moved from the GOP's number two spot to number one, announced that every single member of the leadership team was, in his words, brand new, including the new number two, who McConnell apparently forgot would be in the minority.

Senator MITCH MCCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky): It is my great pleasure to present to you our newly elected assistant majority leader, Trent Lott.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi): Thank you, leader. Congratulations to you.

WELNA: Trent Lott, in fact, already served both as majority and minority leader in the Senate. Still, he seemed grateful for the less exalted post of minority whip.

Sen. LOTT: I'm honored to be a part of this leadership team to support Mitch McConnell and all of my colleagues to do a job that I've always really loved the most: count the votes.

WELNA: Lott, in fact, got the job of whip by mounting a last minute challenge to the man who'd been campaigning for that job for the last year and a half, Tennessee's Lamar Alexander. And Lott won by a single vote. His victory came precisely four years after his colleagues had elected him to be majority leader and pressured him to resign a month later. Asked if he now felt vindicated, Lott had this to say.

Sen. LOTT: I feel exhilarated that I've got an opportunity to be involved again in, you know, an elected position, and to do something, as I said, I really always loved the whip job best of all. So I'm excited about that.

WELNA: Any further reflections on the 1948 presidential election?

Sen. LOTT: No. No, none at all. Strictly looking forward.

WELNA: It was, after all, a remark about the 1948 presidential election that got Lott into some very hot water four years ago. He made it at the 100th birthday party of the late South Carolina Senator Strom Thurmond, who ran and lost as a segregationist Dixiecrat in that presidential race.

(Soundbite of recording)

Sen. LOTT: I want to say this about my state. When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of him.

(Soundbite of applause)

Sen. LOTT: And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have all these problems over all these years either.

WELNA: The remark set off a political firestorm. Within three weeks, Lott had both apologized for what he said and resigned as incoming majority leader. Virginia Republican George Allen, who lost his re-election bid this year after making what were widely seen to be racial slurs, had this to say the day Lott resigned.

Senator GEORGE ALLEN (Republican, Virginia): This is a day that the United States Senate, with Trent Lott's resignation, has buried graveyard dead and gone the days of discrimination and segregation. Those days are gone and gone forever.

WELNA: And gone forever too seems to be any further discussion among his colleagues of Lott's comments. I asked Texas Republican John Cornyn what he and his colleagues talked about in the old Senate chamber before voting on Lott.

In that closed room, did anyone mention specifically the Strom Thurmond birthday party incident that lead to...

Senator JOHN CORNYN (Republican, Texas): Didn't come up.

WELNA: It didn't come up.

Sen. CORNYN: Nope.

WELNA: Maine's Olympia Snowe, a longtime ally of Lott's, said there was no need to bring up Lott's unfortunate paean to Strom Thurmond.

Senator OLYMPIA SNOWE (Republican, Maine): We understand what happened. There's no point going over, you know, that. It's in the past now. And you know, he has expressed, you know, his deep regret, as he should.

WELNA: And Arizona's John McCain said Lott was just the kind of leader Republicans needed now.

Senator JOHN MCCAIN (Republican, Arizona): I think most people think he paid a pretty heavy price for a mistake that he made. You know, we all believe in redemption, thank God.

WELNA: America, said Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, is, after all, a forgiving country.

Senator CHUCK HAGEL (Republican, Nebraska): Everyone has an opportunity to rehabilitate themselves if they want to do it. And I admire Trent Lott for coming back and offering himself. The conference spoke and we go forward.

WELNA: With Trent Lott playing second fiddle in the minority party as his second act.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol.

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