Magazine article Insight on the News

Movement Conservative Leads Senate

Magazine article Insight on the News

Movement Conservative Leads Senate

Article excerpt

Southern congeniality joins ideological firmness as `convictions politician' Trent Lott takes the reins as majority leader from Bob Dole.

For Senate conservatives, long accustomed to their role as outsiders trying to exert pressure on a nonideological leadership, it's a dream come true. One of their own, Mississippi's Trent Lott, is the new majority leader.

A veteran of 16 years in the House, where he was part of Newt Gingrich's band of hard-charging young conservatives, Lott is one of very few to have held leadership positions in both the House and Senate, and he is the only person ever to have held the office of whip in both bodies.

In the Senate as in the House, Lott has amassed a record that combines southern congeniality with the philosophical firmness of a true "convictions politician" -- the term by which former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher liked to distinguish herself from the compromising, consensus-seeking "wets."

For example, in an early test of whether his conservative activism had survived his transition to the Senate, Lott bucked the Bush administration in 1989 by joining a successful effort to derail the nomination of Robert Fiske as deputy attorney general. Fiske was opposed on the grounds that liberal pressure groups routinely received early warning of possible Reagan judicial nominees during the time that Fiske chaired the American Bar Association Standing Committee on the Judiciary.

Overall, Lott earned a score of 92 from the American Conservative Union in 1993, upping that to a perfect 100 in 1994. His rise to the top Senate leadership post has rekindled euphoria among conservatives nearly on the scale of the 1980 and 1994 election results.

The closest Insight could come to a critical conservative voice was in the Rev. Don Wildmon, a fellow Mississippian and president of the American Family Association. Wildmon is dismayed that Lott criticized awarding the power of subpoena to a proposed gambling commission. Such power is viewed by the growing antigambling movement as critical to the commission's effectiveness. Gambling, Wildmon notes sadly, has become a big business in Mississippi, both on those fabled riverboats and along the Gulf Coast. Even so, Wildmon is a Lott booster: "He'll negotiate without compromising. He's a good politician in the best sense of that word."

Family and locality decisively influenced the young Lott. "I had a very close relationship with my mother and father," he tells Insight. "On both sides of the family there's a long tradition of being close and also of being involved in politics. From my earliest years I remember hearing politics and government discussed. My mother's father was a justice of the peace, and my father's father a country supervisor for 12 years. One of my favorite uncles was a tax assessor and state senator. Some of my earliest memories are of going to political events. So, I think a lot of my views, philosophically, and my views about government service were shaped by my own family being involved in it in north Mississippi, in a rural country."

Contrary to popular wisdom that equates compromise with efficiency, the new leader's depth of commitment need not lead to gridlock. "Lott is actually a better deal-maker than Dole, because he knows what he wants," says Dave Mason, vice president for government relations at the Heritage Foundation and a former Lott staffer. "Dole would slide around all the time, which gave the other side maximum incentive to hold out. Dealing with him was like waiting for mush to set. By contrast, Lott knows what he wants, even if he doesn't always get it. On any issue, there's a point past which he will say, `Okay, we won't get a bill this year.' The other side knows this."

Lott first came to Capitol Hill as a staffer to Democratic Rep. William Colmer, who represented Mississippi's Gulf Coast. One of the stalwart Southern conservatives on the House Rules Committee, Colmer often voted with the committee's Republicans to block liberal legislation -- to the point at which, in 1961, then-speaker Sam Rayburn pushed through a plan to add seats to Rules. …

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