Chester Trent Lott, a good Southern boy with a good Southern name (you can just hear his
mama hollerin', "Chesta Trent, you getcho ass in heah fo' supper rawt now"), was born into
extreme Mississippi poverty on October 9, 1941. His father, a sharecropper, could barely
provide for them, scratching out an existence on cotton land so bad that, in the words of the
locals, "the only thing you can grow on it is old". Eventually his father took a job as a
pipefitter in Pascagoula, Mississippi and the family of three moved to the place that Lott
would consider home for the rest of his life.
Though the poverty was less extreme in Pascagoula, the Lotts were always poor. This didn't
stop Trent, as he liked to be called, from becoming one of the popular kids at school. His
talent for politics, for making other people feel good about him by telling them what they
wanted to hear, manifested early. Though he played tuba in the band, not the highest status
position in most American high schools, he was also class president and was voted
most likely to succeed and most popular.
His success continued in college, where he rapidly rose to a leadership position
in his fraternity's national organization. He earned a B.S. in Public Administration from
the Ole Miss University in 1963, graduating with honors.
He remained in school and earned his J.D. in 1967. On the basis of his
schoolwork and the connections gained during law school and in the fraternity he quickly
landed a job as a top aide in the office of longtime Mississippi congressman and committed
segregationist, William Colmer. He was ambitious, intelligent, and, now, well-connected.
Running for Congress must have seemed like the most logical next thing to do.
In 1972, Lott was elected to the first of eight terms in the House of Representatives, filling
the seat from Colmer's old Pascagoula district (with Colmer's endorsement, though Lott ran as a Republican and Colmer had been a Democrat his entire life). As may have been expected
from his performance in high school and college, he rose steadily through the ranks, eventually attaining
the leadership position of Republican House Whip. In 1988 he was elected to the Senate by the
people of Mississippi, for whom he had brought home billions of dollars in government spending
over the preceding 16 years. In 1996 the position of Republican leader in the Senate was opened
up by Bob Dole's departure for his ill-fated presidential campaign. Lott was selected by
Senate Republicans to replace him, completing his rise from dirt-poor sharecropper to the
leadership of America's highest elected body.
That he has been astonishingly successful is beyond doubt; starting from abject
poverty, Trent Lott rose to the position of Senate Majority Leader. Lott's success,
though, is not rooted in any grand principle or overriding philosophical or
intellectual commitment. In fact, Lott provides an object lesson in what most
people think is wrong
with American politics and society. Lott achieved his success not so much through
the force of his actions, but through the grind of daily politics; where others
bravely step forth to offer real solutions to the problems that face America, Lott
can be counted upon to always resist change, to always work for the status quo. He
advanced not through what he did, but through what he didn't do: make enemies by
taking positions that allowed for no compromise.
This, not at all complimentary, view is held up by his legislative record. In his first term in the House, for
instance, he introduced no legislation that was enacted into law and proposed no amendments
that were added to pending bills, whether those bills passed or not. In that first term
the best predictor of where Lott would vote on any issue was whether it would send federal
spending back to his home district in Mississippi. He was elected to bring home the
bacon and that is exactly what he did.
Subsequent House terms were little better, at least if your judgment of a politician
is how well and how frequently he stands on principle and fights the good fight for
the right cause. Though he did eventually introduce legislation that actually passed,
it tended to be of the bring-home-the-bacon kind. Through 16 years of House work Lott
biggest accomplishments were defense contracts to firms with Mississippi operations,
tariffs to protect Mississippi textile and agricultural workers, and increases in federal
unemployment and medical benefits to unemployed Mississippians.
He pushed his pork through the old-fashioned way, too. "Scratch my back and I'll scratch
yours" is Lott's modus operandi. Time after time he has compromised on his stated small-government,
low-regulation principles when it will allow him to bring home more money to the constituents.
Nary an appropriations bill has cleared a Lott-chaired committee without millions of dollars
of spending, targeted at Mississippi, having been inserted.
Another view exists, of course. This view says that while ideological purity, principled
defense of an unpopular cause, and a willingness to go down fighting are traits to be
admired, they do little to actually *get* *anything* *done*. At the end of the day, most
people are better off if they only get 50% of what they want but only have to give
50% of what the other guy wants than they would be if nothing was done and whatever situation
was left to sort itself out. Radical pragmatism, we could call this, and it is the
dominant reality of American politics. With 300 million or so residents, it is simply
impossible to find any action that is ideologically acceptable to all of them--compromise
is the only way to actually get the real world to change.
From this view, Lott has been not just tremendously successful personally, but has
brought great benefit to a huge number of the people who elected him. He has been
a model representative of his people and is evidence of the system working the way
it is supposed to. He, and politicians like him, are the grease that allows the gears
of our nation to turn. It may not be pretty, but some will say the old rule about sausage surely
Biographical data from-
Complete legislative record available from http://thomas.loc.gov/