Election 2006: JFP Interview with Sen. Trent Lott | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

Election 2006: JFP Interview with Sen. Trent Lott

U.S. Sen. Trent Lott has been a stalwart anchor of the Republican Party ever since he switched from Democratic status during the '60s Southern Strategy years. The strategy saw segregationist throwbacks fleeing an increasingly black Democratic Party and transformed the political landscape of the South. Lott got his start in politics after an endorsement by Mississippi Rep. William Colmer, one of the Democratic Party's top segregationists. True to Democratic segregationists' approval of going Republican, the Democrat endorsed Lott even though he was running as a Republican.

Lott himself has proven a controversial figure at times, especially in 2002 when he told a crowd of partygoers that he was proud to have voted for Sen. Strom Thurmond's segregationist ticket in 1948. Lott added that, "if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over the years, either."

But then, weeks later, former CNN President Tom Johnson told reporters that almost 40 years ago, Lott had helped dash an attempt to prevent his Sigma Nu fraternity from admitting blacks to any of its chapters. His voting record reveals that Lott opposed the Martin Luther King holiday and voted against the renewal of the Voting Rights Act, as well as a resolution to honor civil rights martyrs Chaney, Goodman and Schwerner.

Lott explained to reporters that it was a different time, and apologized for the Thurmond remark. Still, he and fellow Mississippi Republican Sen. Thad Cochran declined to co-sponsor a June 13, 2005, Senate resolution formally apologizing for the failure of the Senate to enact anti-lynching legislation during the years when thousands of blacks were lynched by white terrorist mobs.

Lott lost his seat as party leader soon after the Thurmond incident, and his fall has prompted a newfound independent streak in Lott, making him a thorn in the Republican Party's side at times. Lott fought hard against the president's attempt to close some military bases in Mississippi, and he recently irritated the Republican majority by demanding Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld resign over the bumbled and costly war in Iraq. Lately, Lott has been making waves as one of the few U.S. Senators suing insurance companies over what he claims is their failure to cover homeowners during Hurricane Katrina.

Lott was at a recent Mississippi Manufacturers Association award luncheon, explaining that he would continue his battle against pesky little business-dampening things like taxes and environmental oversight. He also thanked members for their support in the U.S. Congress' eradication of the estate tax and promised more oil exploration and conservation. He praised Congress' attempts to drill for gas inside a national coastal water park, but offered no details on the conservation part of the oil plan.

Lott made no agreement for a JFP interview, but the paper managed to catch him in public on more than one occasion, and pummeled him with questions.

You've spoken on unfair international trade. What's your issue there?

Well, China for instance, has a policy of attacking certain segments of our economy and moving in and picking what's left. I think our government should be a lot more active in dealing with the Chinese and the rest of the world when it comes to setting policies.

How can you promote any changes in world trade without the World Trade Organization coming down on us?

Well, you need to work with the WTO, but you also need to do what's right. In the case of the south lumber problem with Canada, WTO ruled against us but we kept working and pushing on it and the Canadians and finally worked out an agreement acceptable to Canada and the American south lumber market.

But China's not as nice to us as Canada.

Well, I went there last year with a delegation from the trade sub-committee that I serve on and the finance committee in the Senate, and we made it clear to them that if you don't start being honest with your currency, and start trading with us more fairly, there's going to be consequences.

Anything coming down the pike to deal with the issue?

We have free trade agreements pending with Peru and Columbia and South Korea, though I have serious reservations about South Korea in particular because they're dishonest in their trading with us. I've told their trade representative that, as it stands, I will oppose the South Korea Free Trade Agreement because I don't think their word is any good.

Some critics complain that the Medicare prescription drug plan is more expensive then it needs to be and is too complicated. What's your plan?

I voted against that plan because I didn't think it was structured correctly, but I do think that you have to acknowledge that if you talk to a lot of our seniors they do feel like they're getting good drugs cheaper. There are still some problems with it. I think we need to make better use of generics. I think we need to do better jobs informing people how the system works. There's no question that we need prescription drugs for our low-income elderly.

The Rep. Foley scandal's fun to talk about. How bad is Mark going to hurt Republicans this year?

It may hurt some because some people may be disillusioned or just may decide not to go vote, but in the end, most congressional races are based on local issues and local personalities, including the Senate. Nobody's going to vote against Chip Pickering or Roger Wicker because of Mark Foley. They didn't have anything to do with that. It's not clear how the leadership in the House handled that matter. Whether they should've been more aggressive than they were, but that'll come out. There's always a difficult election in the fifth year of a two-term president. The party of the president in his sixth year will lose seats. I suspect we will lose seats, but I'm very hopeful we'll hold the majority in both the House and the Senate.

What's your personal view on the Foley mess?

Congress is made up of 435 people (sic) from all across America, and they reflect America, all kinds. You've got a mixture of personalities, and not all of them are good. We, and all members of Congress, make mistakes like everybody else. If we don't behave well, we pay a price at the polls.

(Different reporter) What's your response on the president's response on Iraq. (Bush recently admitted that a "stay the course" strategy wasn't working.)

Obviously he's saying that we have some work to do there, and we need to be prepared to change as circumstances change. I think we have to ask ourselves what tactics are the best right now. Do we need more troops, or do we need a different mix of troops or troops in different places? I do think we should set some guideposts and milestones and expect the Iraqis and our own people to meet over a reasonable period of time. It'll be a challenge, but we'll have to finish our work there that will allow the Iraqi people to choose to have peace and Democracy or freedom. In the end, they'll have to make that decision. … I think the president was signaling today that (the war) is not going as well as we'd like for it to, and we'll have to make some changes in our tactics and expectations.

(Different reporter) What do you think about the war?

Well, we've put a lot of time and treasure and lives and money into Iraq. We're determined that the effort succeeds there. But it is difficult. During this religious holiday they're killing each other, the Shiites and Sunnis, and they're killing Americans, and we're never satisfied with that. Any time Americans are losing their lives we have to stop that, and we will be working on it … and we've got to step up and speak up and the president has got to find a way to turn things around in Iraq.

(Different reporter) Does the fighting going on there (make) for better security here?

We have been fortunate—and it hasn't been an accident—that we have not had another incident in America since 911. We have put a lot of effort and money into our own security at home, from our aviation industry to our ports, and all forms of transportation. We are being more vigilant. Our intelligence operations are doing a better job, so we've got to continue to do that.

Terrorism is not going to go away, no matter what happens in Iraq. … It's like anything else in life, things change and sometimes your efforts are not working the way you want them to. I do think that when Ramadan is over in Iraq, and our elections are over, you're going to see a drop in the violence. Maybe that's wishful thinking. We've got to assume that that's not going to happen and be prepared to do other things to bring it under control.

(Different reporter) Will there be a timetable (for U.S. troops to get out of Iraq)?

No. You can't do that, not from a common-sense standpoint. You can't tell somebody 'Hey, a month from now we're gone, no matter what,' but you do have an obligation to say, 'These are the things we expect to happen by the end of the year, or by the end of March.' Unfortunately the Iraqis have not been meeting those time tables, and I think we're going to have to pressure them a lot harder; and I think the time may be at hand that we need to say, 'You need to deal with these insurgents or you're going to be on your own at some point.' Make sure that they understand that we're not going to stay there and do it for them.

(Different reporter) Has the goal changed?

The goal is the same: Help the people of Iraq not live under a brutal dictatorship and be subjected to all kinds of bad things like being gassed by their own government. Saddam has been removed. I hope he'll be executed in some way.

We have invested in trying to help them get their infrastructure back up and running, from schools to oil wells, but it's been very difficult. The people there have been a warlike people for a long time. Our goal is to help them have an opportunity to have peace and freedom and Democracy. When we succeed, it's going to have a huge impact on that whole Middle East area.

Doesn't the idea of spending between $11 million to $15 million a day on this war scratch at something very fundamental about you as a conservative?

Well, I've always prided myself on being a fiscal hawk. I think that we should try to live within our means. In fact, I've referred to myself as a cheap hawk. I don't want us to spend one nickel for our military that we don't have to, although I want to spend every nickel we need, to make sure our men and women in uniform have what they need to do their job and protect themselves so they're less exposed. That's why these unmanned aerial vehicles are very important. If we had not invested heavily in that technology then we would've lost a lot more lives over the last 10 years. It's been a good investment.

Over the last few years we've had to spend an extraordinary amount of money to secure ourselves and for our work in Afghanistan and Iraq, and even in the recovery from Katrina. Any time the federal government has a deficit, I'm not satisfied.

So you feel the war is worth it? You feel the war is a good war?

No war is a good war. All wars are bad. I learned that from the comments of Gen. Eisenhower in the past. But there are times when you have to step up and be prepared to fight for the right causes, whether it's to take out the Taliban that used Afghanistan as a launching pad to attack us on 911, to trying to stop the promotion of terrorism in Iraq—like we knew Saddam was doing—even down to sending money to suicide bombers in the Middle East. He was doing that. Sending $25,000 to the families of suicide bombers. He was encouraging them to blow themselves up. So I do worry about the cost, but once the commitment is made, whether you agree with it or not, you've got to do what's necessary to give our men and women the supplies they need.

Congress has only met about 93 times during the second session. That's about three months worth of work for a minimum $165,000 each, annually. Do you seriously think Congress has earned its paycheck?

I've been outspoken and critical of Congress for not being in session more and for not addressing some of the issues that need to be addressed like health care, energy issues, immigration reform. There's a lot of work we could've done, should've done, and if I had been in a position to make that decision we would've done it. Go back and look at the days in session and the bills passed when I was majority leader and made those decisions. I made them work on Mondays and on Fridays. In fact, I always told my colleagues in the Senate, back when it was my call to make, that we're gonna plan on being here until noon on Friday. Now if you want to go home to your state Friday afternoon, fine, but we're going to vote until noon on Friday. I think the criticism of Congress not being in session more is legitimate.

(Different reporter) Who's going to be in charge of the Senate?

Well, if we maintain our majority on the Republican side I think the leader will be Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. There may be an opportunity for me to move back into a leadership position as the whip position. I have a good friend from Pennsylvania who's having a tough race, and if he's re-elected I'm going to support his position, but how that turns out is in the hands of God now.

(Different reporter) So you believe the Republicans will stay in charge?

For the Democrats to take the majority they'd have to win all six competitive Republican seats and both of the competitive Democrat seats. They'd have to run the tables and win eight out of eight races.

I don't see that happening. But I do expect some losses on the Republicans side … if for no other reason than because that usually happens in the sixth year of a two-term president. There's a little bit of an itch that sets in. And I do think we Republicans need to do a better job with our message.

The economy is extraordinarily good. We have done a good job in fighting terrorism; security is important. If Congress starts raising taxes again the economy will slow down, and interest rates will go up and inflation will go up. Elections do have consequences, and I hope the Americans will send a message, but don't kill the messenger.

Personally, I think the Democrats wish they had me back in leadership because I always found a way to work with the other side of the aisle. We haven't been doing that so good lately.

Isn't it time for a minimum-wage increase, yet?

We've already had a vote in the House and the Senate on wage increase. I voted for it. It was a part of a package that Democrats killed because they didn't like the fact that it was a compromise on the death tax. (Our package included ending) the death tax, (estate tax) … a minimum wage (increase), and also tax extenders like the R&D tax credit and deduction for college tuition and stuff like that. For the life of me, I cannot understand why the Democrats killed that package—

Alright, try this: Isn't it time for a minimum-wage increase without strings attached?

In Washington, there ain't no such thing as anything without strings attached. The process doesn't allow you to just do it. The last time we got it passed, I was the Republican leader. 1996. … What I did was couple it with small-business tax incentives. A problem with minimum wage tax increases is that the people you're trying to help get hit the hardest because many of them are training type people. … A business owner has to pay for that wage increase some way. He either takes it from his bottom line or he passes it on to his consumers with higher prices. If you're selling pizzas, you can't do either one of those. You have to lay off some of your employees.

So we added some tax incentives, but to put together the kind of compromise package that makes it possible to pass the minimum wage takes real leadership and talent. Of late, we haven't had either. We've had weak leadership, weak effort to make a compromise, and partisanship. … Both sides are to blame.

Previous Comments


I saw Lott Sunday on Meet the Press or some other news show and he impressed me that he's willing and about ready to get beyond his upbringing/socialization/indoctrination, and make a real effort to do some wonderful things for the country and Mississippi. I wish him the best, and will still say, of all our congressmen, he can do the most to change the image of Mississippi. No strides will be like his for obvious reasons that don't need to be stated any more. Benny is doing his part and in no way is Benny the black Trent Lott (of the past).

Ray Carter

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