Clinton on Trial, But in Some Ways, So is Lott

By Chuck Raasch
Gannett News Service, Tuesday, January 26, 1999
Copyright 1999 Gannett News Service

WASHINGTON -- Has Trent Lott done the best job he can with a losing hand, or has he simply played his hand badly?

It is too early for an answer, but one thing is certain:  The impeachment trial of Bill Clinton also has turned into a political trial for the Republican leader in the Senate.

In a process the National Journal has described as akin to herding cats, the embattled Senate majority leader has struggled to keep Clinton' s impeachment trial from breaking into full-scale partisan war.

But in doing so, the straight-laced Lott has felt pressure from conservatives in his own party who want a full trial of Clinton, regardless of political fallout.

But this is political reality: the GOP began the process at least 12 votes shy of removing Clinton, and no cracks have appeared in the Democrats' defense of the president.

"There are two legacies that will be impacted by this whole ordeal,"' said Randy Tate, executive director of the Christian Coalition. "One is Bill Clinton's, and to a certain extent, he has already been severely damaged based on being the first elected president to be impeached.

"The other," Tate said, "is Trent Lott's, in how he handles this proceeding."

For Lott, 57, a Mississippi gentleman who insists on having every hair in place, every shirt collar meticulously pressed, January has been anything but orderly.

It has been a month of trial balloons, parliamentary fights, charges of racism, temporary truces, angry press conferences, scolding letters from fellow Republicans.

Clinton may have committed the original acts that sparked this constitutional showdown, but lately Lott's actions sometimes have been under a bigger microscope.

Conservatives have groused that he has not sufficiently toed the anti-Clinton line. Moderates publicly have wrung their hands over his part in prolonging a losing cause. Most of the criticism so far has come from outside the Senate.

But while the House trial managers, led by Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., have bitterly complained that the Senate is not treating them with respect, Lott and his leadership team have been praised by both conservatives and moderates for holding the 55 GOP senators together and avoiding a full-scale partisan war with Democrats akin to what took place in the House.

To make conditions more difficult, Democrats -- while pledging bipartisanship -- have retreated largely into a partisan circle around Clinton.

"I think he was handed an issue in which the pressures on him were equally great on both sides," said Susan Howell, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans.

"He was pressured by conservative Republicans, and not just from Mississippi. And he's had the moderate Republicans -- and there are certainly more of them in the Senate than in the House -- saying 'let' s get this over with quickly.' ... I think Trent Lott was in a worse position than anybody in this process."

Worse even, some think, than Clinton.  Here's why:  Although Clinton has been impeached, and although even his most passionate defenders call his actions in the Monica Lewinsky scandal indefensible, the president all year has seen his poll numbers soar.

His job-approval ratings have shot up even while Lott's Republican Party has suffered the brunt of public displeasure for an impeachment process that now has lingered for more than a month.

If it has taken a toll on Lott, he has not betrayed it in public. His defenders point out that he has been remarkably circumspect and civil in the face of relentless questioning of his tactics, motives and ability -- much of it from his own side.

"I have got strong ideas about most issues and don't hesitate to tell him, but this thing is full of so many nuances that I have got to trust him and I do completely," said Clark Reed, a long-time Lott confidant who often is credited for rebuilding the modern Mississippi Republican Party.

The process, said Reed, "is taking all the prayerful wisdom (Lott can muster) to get it done."

Added Reed: "It is an impossible job, and you have got to say it but these guys are doing their duty ... I can't see any political advantage.

"Gosh, the old road map you have got is a hundred-some years old," Reed added, referring to the 1868 impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson. "And you are trying to work in the kind of situation when public opinion is against you all the way. ... The (politically correct) thing would have been to flush this from the beginning."

Not that there has not been pressure to do just that.

After the House impeached Clinton, former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole floated a trial op-ed balloon, suggesting a censure and quick exit.

It was a prime example of the length Dole's considerable shadow still throws over Lott. But Lott immediately heard pressure from conservatives that such a move would be a slap in the face of Republicans who had pushed through two impeachment articles in the House.

In early January, Lott tried to short-circuit a lengthy trial by speaking well of a bipartisan move for a quick trial, without witnesses. But after a scolding letter from House Judiciary Chairman Hyde, that fell apart.

So the trial has proceeded ad hoc, with virtually daily negotiations over process. On Tuesday, the debate was over whether Republicans should be able to call witnesses, and if so, which ones.

Some conservatives say that calling witnesses is their minimum measure of Lott.

"The danger for Trent Lott is being cast in the image of Bob Dole the dealmaker," said Keith Appell, a conservative GOP media strategist.

"Because Lott always passes himself off as more of a conservative in touch with the grass roots of the party. Yes, he has been in Washington a long time, but the grass roots of the party has always looked at him as one of them a lot more than Bob Dole."

Conservatives, said Appell, are not worried about a backlash should witnesses prolong the trial.

"I don't think folks home are worried about that," he said. "They say, 'are we holding (Clinton's) feet to the fire? Are we holding a full and fair trial? Are are we sorting through the discrepancies?'

"And after that," Appell said, "even if the majority of Democrats vote to let (Clinton) get away with it, that does not hurt Trent Lott or the Republican Party, at least to conservatives."

In the midst of impeachment, Lott has come under withering fire from some Democrats, including Clinton adviser James Carville, for speaking several years ago to an organization called theCouncil of Conservative Citizens.

The group denies it espouses racist beliefs, but even Republican National Chairman Jim Nicholson said that appears to be the case.

Lott told reporters last week that "when you run for office in Mississippi and when you serve the state of Mississippi, you speak to a lot of different groups, a lot of different people."

"I don't subscribe to any kind of issues like you're talking about there -- white supremacist" Lott said. "I don't think we need that, and we're beyond that, I hope."

It was another messy wrinkle for Lott.

His friend, Reed, views the whole trial as a survival game for Lott.

"It is not going to be a D-Day type victory here on this thing," the 70-year-old Reed quipped. "How you do your job is what your report card is on that."

(Dennis Camire and Jim Specht of Gannett News Service contributed.)

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