on Trial, But in Some Ways, So is Lott
Gannett News Service, Tuesday, January 26, 1999
© Copyright 1999 Gannett News Service
-- Has Trent Lott done the best job he can with a losing hand,
or has he simply played his hand badly?
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
other," Tate said, "is Trent Lott's, in how he handles
Lott, 57, a Mississippi gentleman who insists on having every
hair in place, every shirt collar meticulously pressed, January
has been anything but orderly.
been a month of trial balloons, parliamentary fights, charges
of racism, temporary truces, angry press conferences, scolding
letters from fellow Republicans.
may have committed the original acts that sparked this constitutional
showdown, but lately Lott's actions sometimes have been under
a bigger microscope.
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.
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.
conditions more difficult, Democrats -- while pledging bipartisanship
-- have retreated largely into a partisan circle around Clinton.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
process, said Reed, "is taking all the prayerful wisdom (Lott
can muster) to get it done."
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
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.
the House impeached Clinton, former Senate Majority Leader Bob
Dole floated a trial op-ed balloon, suggesting a censure and quick
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.
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.
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.
conservatives say that calling witnesses is their minimum measure
"The danger for Trent Lott is being cast in the image of
Bob Dole the dealmaker," said Keith Appell, a conservative
GOP media strategist.
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.
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
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."
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.
group denies it espouses racist beliefs, but even Republican National
Chairman Jim Nicholson said that appears to be the case.
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."
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
"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."
Camire and Jim Specht of Gannett News Service contributed.)