The “boy from Pascagoula,” as his colleagues refer to him, sat legs folded as senator after senator rose over more than three hours to celebrate his life and times. The ceremony was unusual for the cantankerous legislative body, but was reminiscent of a more collegial time. Breaking from a more formal nature, senators referred to themselves by their first names, as when Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) referred to “Elizabeth or Norm or Lamar.”
Lott smiled, nodded and shook hands with his flatterers throughout the day, telling them in closing remarks that he was “hesitant about what you’d say” but that their kind words nearly made him want to reconsider his decision to retire from the Senate to pursue a lobbying career.
“My mother would have loved it all and believed it all,” said Lott. “It sounded so good. I’m thinking of changing my mind or maybe announcing for president.”
Like much of what is said on the Senate floor, the love lavished on Lott went straight over the top and stayed there all morning.
Sen. Gordon Smith (D-Ore.) quoted Shakespeare to say that “this was a man.”
Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) said the man was “a phoenix rising from the ashes” and Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) complimented the “magnificent restoration” of his career. Five years ago Thursday, Lott resigned his leadership post after making public comments supportive of a 1948 presidential campaign run on a platform of segregation.
Those comments were just beneath many of the speeches and cracked the surface of a few, including Smith’s. “I watched over international news as his words were misconstrued, words which we had heard him utter many times in his big warm-heartedness trying to make one of our colleagues, Strom Thurmond, feel good at 100 years old. We knew what he meant. But the wolf pack of the press circled around him, sensed blood in the water, and the exigencies of politics caused a great injustice,” said Smith. (In 2002, he was “deeply dismayed” by the same remarks. What a difference a retirement makes.)
His fidelity to his home state was more of a theme than his Thurmond remarks. “No state has ever been served better,” declared Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) of Lott's Mississippi.
Lott “could move to Alabama and win,” predicted Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).
“He’s married to a beautiful belle that he went to college with,” pointed out Chambliss.
The praise from both sides of the aisle appeared genuine, and much of it spoke approvingly about his decision to cash out and set up shop on K Street.
“I look forward to learning new things about schmoozing,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), heralding a “beginning of new great things.”
Lott's longtime Mississippi colleague, Republican Sen. Thad Cochran, agreed. “I know Trent and his family will enjoy the new opportunities he’ll have,” he said. “He’s earned the right to new, less burdensome and more rewarding experiences in the years ahead.”
Lott’s legendary ability to count votes was referenced repeatedly and will certainly serve him well in his coming less-burdensome experiences. His former roommate from 1968, Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), noted that because of Lott’s ability he wound up writing “27 thank you notes for 24 votes” — referring to the whip race that he thought he had locked up, only to see Lott win by one. Lott himself admitted that he started the Senate choir to help score a vote or two — and that that it worked at least once.
In politics, said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), “the greatest sin is not being able to count. If tat’s the case, then Trent is as pure as the driven snow.” Sessions recalled the time when the Senate was debating President Bush’s major tax-cut package and Lott still needed a vote or two. He called the entire caucus into the Senate chaplain’s office, which Sessions said had never been done before and hasn’t been done since. Lott secured 50 votes and Vice President Cheney broke the tie.
Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.) also touted Lott’s political skills in a floor speech that could fairly be described as courageous. Domenici began by reminding the chamber that he was living with a degenerative brain disease that made recalling events difficult. “I was in the middle of a lot of things,” he said quietly. “I must have been if I’ve been here 36 years.”
His voice and strength returned as he appeared to begin to remember a few of those things. Recalling the negotiations over the stalled budget that had shut down the government during the Clinton administration, Domenici had the chamber rolling in laughter. “He’d have a great press conference and really sound like he knew what he was talking about,” Domenici said, stressing that Lott did not, in fact, know what he was talking about and wasn’t involved in the negotiations.
He ended by poignantly adding, “There is life after the Senate.”
For Lott, that life will likely be a lucrative one.
“Glory is not in never failing but in rising every time you fail,” a fully risen Lott told the assembled senators. He then pulled his whip cards out of his pocket and reminded them he may need a few more votes before he leaves.