Lott Reflects On His Downfall

Trent Lott, Capitol Building, Senate Majority Leader, Sad, (R) Miss.
CBS/AP
Sen. Trent Lott, in his first public remarks since resigning as Senate Republican leader, said Sunday that he had fallen into a "trap" set by his political enemies and had "only myself to blame."

Lott became the focus of a raging controversy for his remarks 2½ weeks ago praising Sen. Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist run for president.

Asked in an interview Sunday with The Associated Press whether he was disappointed in a lack of support from President Bush in keeping his post, Lott said:

"I don't think there's any use in trying to say I'm disappointed in anybody or anything. An inappropriate remark brought this down on my head."

However, he said there were those who had been gunning for his resignation.

"There are some people in Washington who have been trying to nail me for a long time," Lott said. "When you're from Mississippi and you're a conservative and you're a Christian, there are a lot of people that don't like that. I fell into their trap and so I have only myself to blame."

He wouldn't say who those political enemies were.

Talking outside his home here, Lott again said his comments at Thurmond's 100th birthday party were not malicious and he repeated his pledge to turn the experience into positive action as he finishes his term in the Senate.

"I feel very strongly about my faith. God has put this burden on me, I believe he'll show me a way to turn it into a good," Lott said.

He also said he regretted the comments reflecting poorly on his home state.

At Thurmond's party Dec. 5, Lott had said that Mississippians were proud to have voted for Thurmond in 1948. "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead," he said, "we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

At first, Lott tried to deflect criticism, saying his speech was only meant as lighthearted praise of the retiring Thurmond. He later apologized, saying "a poor choice of words conveyed to some the impression that I embraced the discarded policies of the past. Nothing could be further from the truth."

Lott resigned his leadership post on Friday after Mr. Bush publicly called the remarks offensive and wrong, and senators in his own party scheduled a Jan. 6 meeting to decide if Lott should continue as their leader after six years in the role.

The man expected to replace him is Sen. Bill Frist, a wealthy heart surgeon from Tennessee, who is seen by many Republicans as cautious but ambitious and considering a possible 2008 run for the White House. Senate Republicans planned to elevate Frist in a conference call Monday, making him majority leader when the GOP retakes Senate control next month.

Lott said Sunday that he would continue to represent Mississippi in the Senate, but not serve in a leadership position.

"I have a job to do," he said, "and I believe that my experience (and) my knowledge of having been in a leadership role will allow me in the future to do some more good things for our state."

The incoming Judiciary Committee chairman, GOP Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, praised President Bush — as the party's top leader — for reaching out to all people and he criticized Democrats who argue that Republicans' positions hold little appeal for minorities.

"The attitude is that only Democrats care about minorities. That's pure B.S.," Hatch said during a broadcast interview.

"I think every Republican is working hard to try and be good to minorities and do what's right. We can't support some of the far-left, you know, extreme approaches toward race, but we certainly do believe in equality."

As majority leader, Frist can make a difference in bringing more people into the Republican camp, Hatch said.

"It'll be a different face than what we've had, and I'm not criticizing what we've had, but I think Bill has a kind of a more moderate record and a more moderate approach toward things," Hatch said.

A leading Democrat, Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, agreed. "But I think he's going to have to reach out. It's not enough to say that we're all colorblind or anything else."

Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa., said the concerns raised about Lott's remarks have "re-energized many of us here in the Senate to build this country from the bottom up and provide equal opportunity for every American to succeed in the American dream."

Lott's fellow Mississippian, GOP Sen. Thad Cochran, also said on CBS' "Face the Nation" that it was important that Republicans show "we have genuine concern and a plan" to address the interests of minorities.

On Sunday, a police bomb squad was called to Lott's home in a false alarm after a passer-by left a box on his mailbox. On the box, in black marker, were the words: "We always knew you were a hypocrite, Trent. Thanks for setting Mississippi back another 50 years."

Police found no trace of explosives.

The woman who left the box, Mary Davis, grew up in Pascagoula and now teaches elementary school in Maryland but was in town for the holidays. She said that even in Lott's hometown, where he has had a lot of support, there are many who feel the same way she does.

"There are people who agree with me, they just don't come out," Davis said. "They want to be polite. But I felt like I should say something."