Trent Lott's Latest Chapter: 'Herding Cats' Sen. Trent Lott talks with Debbie Elliott about politics past and present, from the civil rights era of the 1960s to federal disaster relief for hurricane victims. He has a new memoir, Herding Cats: A Life in Politics.
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Trent Lott's Latest Chapter: 'Herding Cats'

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Trent Lott's Latest Chapter: 'Herding Cats'

Trent Lott's Latest Chapter: 'Herding Cats'

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Debbie Elliott.

Senator TRENT LOTT (Republican, Mississippi; Author, "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics"): Pascagoula, Mississippi, December 20, 2002, `Dawn appeared quiet and clear on the Friday morning that would change my life irrevocably.'

ELLIOTT: That was the day almost three years ago when Trent Lott was forced to resign as Senate majority leader after telling Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party that, quote, "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, Mississippians voted for him. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years either." Lott reads here from the first chapter of his new memoir, "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics."

Sen. LOTT: `The winter sun turned the ripples of the Gulf of Mexico into that state of molted silver so distinctive to the Mississippi coast. Even the Gulf itself was flat and glassy, a beautiful setting as the city around me plunged into the Christmas season. My house looks out over an expanse of grass and trees to the breakwater and, beyond that, to the windswept Gulf Islands barely visible through the marine haze.'

ELLIOTT: That house and the homes of many of Trent Lott's neighbors are gone now in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. This past week, we sat down with Senator Lott at his Capitol Hill office to talk about the federal role after the storm, how Republicans abandoned him after his controversial statement that a segregationist should have been president and coming of age in 1960s Mississippi. Lott is still reeling from the destruction on the Gulf Coast.

Sen. LOTT: When I go, I just have the urge to cry. People are living in tents a month since the hurricane, and I'm extremely disappointed in that. It has not been handled well, and FEMA has been extremely disappointing. I mean, you can put, you know, a lipstick on this pig, but it ain't pretty. And I think it's irresponsible for me to try to let on like everything is hunky-dory. And it's going to take time, but it's also going to take a commitment from the federal government, which has not so far been fulfilled.

ELLIOTT: Is it awkward for you to be sitting here as a Republican saying the federal government is the solution to this crisis?

Sen. LOTT: I'm not happy about having to do that, but I also am not such a partisan that I don't speak the truth. I do care about some things more than my party, and that includes my constituents, the people that have elected me to office, the people I know. And I've looked them in their face and in their eyes, and I know how badly they need help. And if they're not getting it, I'm not going to put up with that. I'll do it...

ELLIOTT: Has this changed the way that you think about the role of the federal government?

Sen. LOTT: Not really, no.

ELLIOTT: You know, we've always heard that government is bad, that government is not the solution, it's the problem.

Sen. LOTT: You know, I still--well, no, this hurricane has proven once again the genius of America is not our government. The government is slow. In FEMA's defense, there's no question that we made a mistake putting them on Homeland Security. There's no question that they have been improperly funded. There's no question that we expect things from them that they're not capable of doing. But there's also no question they're incompetent. So while it pains me to say that about my own administration, I am at a stage in my career, as is evidenced in my book "Herding Cats," if I think it and if I believe it's true, I'm going to say it.

ELLIOTT: You're in a bit of a battle with the administration now over whether people in the hurricane zone can get Medicaid benefits...

Sen. LOTT: I am. And I think...

ELLIOTT: ...much like the 9/11 victims did.

Sen. LOTT: ...the administration, the White House have been irresponsible on that. I'm not interested in just blowing millions or billions of dollars. I'm worried about the man or woman in Hancock County, Mississippi, that lost their home, their car, their job, their dog, and the hospital doesn't exist. Now where is that man or woman going to get their medical care, their health care from? Who's going to assist them? The government has to do that only temporarily. I mean, I still have my philosophy. I don't think that the government should be providing aid to people that can provide for themselves. But I do think the government exists to do things for people that they cannot do themselves.

ELLIOTT: Let's talk a little bit about your book now...

Sen. LOTT: All right.

ELLIOTT: ..."Herding Cats." And I want to talk a little bit about you--being from your generation...

Sen. LOTT: Sure.

ELLIOTT: ...in the South, you were a witness to a whole lot of change that happened in this country. And you say that you are not a segregationist; you've never been a racist. But I would think that you were raised in an environment to think one way about the races, and then you're confronted with the issue of desegregation when you're at Ole Miss. And I'm just wondering what's going through your mind...

Sen. LOTT: Well...

ELLIOTT: ...at the time and how you're dealing with--when the first black student is trying to enroll at the University of Mississippi and you're a student there.

Sen. LOTT: Well, first of all, I think you need to remember it is my generation that was in the transition. We weren't there during the worst of it, and we've been there through the transition and into where we are now. Now some people would say `not nearly enough' or `still under way,' but, still, our generation was kind of, you know, in the middle of what was happening. Perhaps this is a criticism, but when I was growing up--maybe it was where I grew up--Pascagoula was not, you know, your typical Mississippi town. There really weren't racial problems. Our schools were integrated with barely a blip on the screen. I do think that there was a certain naivete, that you really weren't conscious of these, you know, problems of the past or the slights of that time or the changes that were going on. I lived in what I thought was a very idyllic time. And things at Pascagoula High School were never ugly and negative.

And even at Ole Miss, I think I was shocked by all of it. I was shocked by, you know, what went on so that James Meredith could get in. I was shocked at the reaction of our political leaders in my own state. Ross Barnett, which I thought--you know, I didn't like Ross Barnett, you know, standing in the schoolhouse door. I always thought that was--and George Wallace doing it in Alabama. I always thought that was an invitation to trouble. Why did they do that? I was shocked that marshals were surrounding the lyceum that day when I came back. You know, I guess I should have been more attuned to all that was going sort of on in the world and around me, but, you know, we were in sort of a cocoon.

ELLIOTT: You write that the federal government sending in troops was part of the problem of why violence...

Sen. LOTT: Yeah. Yeah.

ELLIOTT: ...ensued at the university. And then decades later, when you make your comment to Strom Thurmond, you're kind of indicating that maybe Mississippians were right, that, `Had we done it this way, the country would have been better off.'

Sen. LOTT: Right.

ELLIOTT: And I'm wondering if there's this sense that integration should have happened a different way, that the country went about it the wrong way.

Sen. LOTT: Violence is never the answer. Couldn't we have done it without the disaster that occurred that night? And I don't try to put the blame just on the federal government. Anybody that was involved that led to that situation that wound up people getting killed in that scene that night was--I--you know, just--that's indefensible. And here's the thing about Strom Thurmond, too. Strom Thurmond, when I got here, was an elderly man. He was for, you know--I mean, he was a leader in defense, law enforcement, you know, fiscal responsibility. That's the man I saw. I never knew Strom Thurmond from a hole in the ground in 1947 or whenever it was.

ELLIOTT: Do you understand, in retrospect, though, the way that people heard what you said...

Sen. LOTT: Oh, yeah, I do understand that.

ELLIOTT: ...and the implications of that?

Sen. LOTT: And I understand that. And it was--clearly those words were a bad choice of words, and they were insensitive, and I was disappointed in it and in myself, and I understood how people felt about that. But I also thought that my apologies and my explanations were heartfelt and that it shouldn't have led to what it did.

ELLIOTT: I'm going to read you a quote. You're talking about the fallout, and you write, quote, "Democrats tend to surround their wounded players and try to prop them up, but we Republicans eat our own."

Sen. LOTT: I really do believe that the Democrats rally around their wounded, like they did Bill Clinton, and Republicans quite often hit the road.

ELLIOTT: What happened to you?

Sen. LOTT: Well, the--a lot of them hit the road. They--it was too hot to handle, and they took off. But here's--this is going to surprise you. That's one of the reasons why I am a Republican. I do think your conduct makes a difference. And I do think that the fact that Republicans expect you to be careful of what you say and how you conduct yourself is the right thing.

ELLIOTT: Reading this book, I get the sense that almost every moment in your life was honing you for political leadership, down to the point, frankly, when you are a child sort of navigating your parents. You know, your father had a drinking problem, your mother was unhappy; they didn't get along. And you were kind of bossing them around even, telling them, `You can't get a divorce.'

Sen. LOTT: When you have a crisis in your family at that age and you're an only child, it forces you to confront difficulties and problems and try to find solutions. It forces you to go to your father that you did love and that loved you and said, `Dad, you know, you--this drinking thing has got to be dealt with.' I do think that it led to the kind of person that I became. That's what I've been doing since I guess I was about five years old.

ELLIOTT: And my last question is about Mississippi. You quote this reporter, who is trying to hand you a compliment, but he's saying something like, `Oh, but you've got to give Trent Lott credit because he's been able to achieve this in spite...'

Sen. LOTT: Yeah.

ELLIOTT: `...of being from Mississippi.'

Sen. LOTT: It has hurt me over the years to see the way people think about and treat Mississippi. Can we never get over the sins of our fathers? Can we join the Union maybe, you know? I can see in my state, before this hurricane hit us so hard, the attitude had changed. I contribute it, I think, to a more positive attitude. I also contribute it to my state taking another hit. And I'm sorry, but I'm not going to let that hold me down, and I hope that my state can benefit from the--what I've learned, the mistakes I've made, the things I've done. And I hope we can turn Katrina into a blessing. Right now it looks like a curse. But I'll bet you in 10 years people will look back and say, `Look what happened. This is a shining example of what can be done by determined, committed people.'

ELLIOTT: Thank you, Senator Trent Lott of Mississippi. His memoir is "Herding Cats: A Life in Politics."

Thanks for sharing with us.

Sen. LOTT: My pleasure. Thank you very much.

ELLIOTT: To hear more of our conversation with Trent Lott, including his views on the troubles of other Republican leaders, go to our Web site, npr.org.

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