PASCAGOULA, Miss. The night sky was lit by flames from burning cars, the smoky air stinging with tear gas. Bottles, bricks and rocks were hurtling toward the federal marshals surrounding the campus administration building.
On that evening of Sept. 30, 1962, thousands of students at the University of Mississippi - joined by others from throughout the state - were waging a savage protest against the court-ordered admission of James Meredith, a 29-year-old black man. By the end of the 15-hour riot, a journalist and a jukebox repairman from a nearby town would be shot dead, dozens injured and 150 people arrested.
On the other side of campus, 20-year-old Trent Lott was trying to impose order on his corner of the chaos.
As chapter commander of his fraternity, Sigma Nu, Lott was working the phone and sending out messengers, trying to round up all 120 of his brothers - particularly the freshmen pledges living in dormitories near the center of the riot - and bring them to the shelter of the Sigma Nu house.
Don't go over there, he exhorted fraternity brothers again and again. There's no need for you to get involved in that craziness.
It wasn't an easy sell.
"Most of us were unreconstructed rebels," says William D. Trahan, a Sigma Nu who briefly took part in the protest. "We were fired up for reasons that had a lot more to do with the federal government than they did with James Meredith. One hundred years after the [Civil] War we felt like we were still being treated like a conquered province."
Lott felt the same way. He didn't think Meredith belonged at Ole Miss, didn't believe in forced racial integration.
But he wasn't about to be consumed by an ideological cause or carried away by emotions of the moment. His real passion was for order and control. What he cared about was keeping his fraternity brothers safe and out of jail.
"I was alarmed by what was happening," Lott says.
Instead of going up to the roof with Trahan and others to watch the campus burn, Lott remained glued to the phone. His roundup operation was conducted in what is now recognized as the Senate majority leader's trademark style: energetic, disciplined, highly organized, goal-oriented.
"Trent was cool, calm and in charge," Trahan says. "Even then, he had a presence."
And even then, he got results. With the exception of Lott's best friend, Gayland Roberts, who was arrested while trying to help a friend rescue his car, every member of Sigma Nu got through that night unscathed.
"We were very fortunate," Lott says now.
The skills he displayed during the riot earned him an Achievement of the Year award from his fraternity. And they would be marshaled again and again during his rise from a small-town Mississippi boy to the most powerful Republican in the country.
Trent Lott likes to say that Mississippi now owns the best view in Washington: the panorama of monuments and museums visible
from his spacious office on the west front of the Capitol. But he still prefers sitting in a rocker on the wide front porch of his antebellum Creole house in Pascagoula, gazing past the beach and the murky water of Mississippi Sound to the barrier islands on the horizon.
With its graceful mansions and ancient oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, Lott's neighborhood along Beach Boulevard is by far the prettiest place in Pascagoula. Much of the town is dominated by a commercial shipyard, a Coast Guard installation and a Navy home port. Hulking cranes, dry docks, warehouses and mounds of rusty metal mar the banks of the Singing River on the west side. A Chevron refinery looms over the horizon in the east.
Lott spent much of his youth in this blue-collar universe, along what used to be the town's main north-south thoroughfare, Pascagoula Street. This was where he lived, went to school, sang in his Baptist church choir, married his college sweetheart and learned the courtesies and traditions of Southern life.
He and his parents moved into a little house in the north end of town after his father, Chester P. Lott, gave up on farming in his native Grenada, Miss., and came to work at the shipyard. Trent was nearly 12. An only child, he quickly adopted Dee Lemaitrie, the girl next door, as his sister. The two went off to junior high and high school together.
By their senior year, Trent and Dee were Mr. and Mrs. Pascagoula High, homecoming king and queen, and president and secretary of the senior class. He was leader in the High Y and the Key Club, and played the tuba in the school band. Lott and Gayland Roberts took turns playing the lead in school plays and sang in a quartet.
Voted the "neatest boy" in his class, Lott was already known for his meticulous appearance. His thick, dark hair was smartly parted; he sported a bow tie on occasion. "And he didn't like his food to touch," says Dee Lemaitrie Phillips, who now runs Lott's Pascagoula office. "He would eat one item at a time, and then turn the plate."
Lott's schoolboy nickname was "Gap" because "I had a gap between my front teeth that you could drive a Mack truck through." (He had the gap closed with braces when he was about 25.)
Lott and his friends went to sock hops and football games, and hung out at a little burger joint called Edd's Drive-in. Lott was one of the few with a car, a '48 Chevy. He'd give occasional rides home to a pretty sophomore named Tricia Thompson, whom he dated through college and married before finishing law school.
"When I was growing up, it was great to be an American," Lott says. "The music was good. It was a happy time."
At home with his parents, though, Lott's childhood was not so pleasant. His father was a handsome, gregarious man, much loved by his buddies down at the shipyard. But he had such a thirst for alcohol that he would smack his lips in anticipation of a drink. The heavy drinking led to fights with Lott's mother, Iona, who worked a series of jobs - as a schoolteacher, a bookkeeper, a radio log writer, a dietitian in an alcohol-abuse center - to help make ends meet.
Lott says his father never struck him or his mother, but they would fight about the drinking, and he would try to get them to stop.
The couple divorced after Lott went off to college. His father was killed in an automobile accident in 1969 that occurred after both he and the other driver apparently had been drinking.
"Trent had a hard life; he's really had to push his way," says Vivian Higgenbotham, a former teacher of Lott's known to her students as "Miss Higgy."
But Lott rarely let on to his school friends that anything was amiss. "A couple of times we were going over to his house, and he warned me there might be a problem with his father," says J. L. Scarborough, a high-school classmate. "But that was about the only time he ever mentioned it."
Pascagoula was largely spared the racial strife that troubled other parts of Mississippi, mostly because it didn't have a large black population. In the '50s, there were barely enough black students to fill Carver High, the "colored" school only four blocks away from Pascagoula High. The two schools shared some equipment and services, including the razor strop used to discipline students.
H. Ken Seay, vice principal of Pascagoula High during those years, says he can still hear the rich, Southern voice of Carver's principal calling to let him know:
"I'm sending a child for the strop. I have a student that I have to counsel."
Lott never questioned the morality of segregation. He was ensconced in an all-white world and felt comfortable there. He didn't embrace the civil rights movement, not even when other Southern whites began to do so, not even when he was running for the Senate in a state more than one-third black.
He hates it when people dredge up Mississippi's past: the
murders of civil rights leader Medgar Evers in 1963 and three young civil rights workers the following year. In Lott's view, Mississippi doesn't deserve to be forever tarred with the worst excesses of racism.
"We've always felt a little abused, a little shunted aside," he says. "We've always felt like they've kept resurrecting our past, beat us over the head with it and used it to hold us back. We've made some mistakes, but we are trying to get beyond that."
To a little boy eavesdropping under his grandfather's porch, the political talk sounded exciting. His grandfather was a leading political boss in the northern end of the state, a county commissioner who could command large blocs of votes.
"When election time rolled around, the boys [Trent's father and uncles] and some of the cousins would show up, and they'd sit out on the porch," Lott recalls. "Grandpa would sit in his rocker and the boys would sit on chairs around him on the steps, and they'd talk through the election and who they were going to support.
"I used to get up under the edge of the porch and listen. I thought it was a wonderful event. I loved to hear them talk."
By the time he was in 10th grade, Lott knew he wanted to run for office. By the time he was a college sophomore, he was running his first serious campaign: vying for a slot on the Ole Miss cheerleading squad. The position required no athletic ability, but traditionally has served as a proving ground for Mississippi politicians.
Lott pulled out all the stops. He had a campaign manager, banners, palm cards, even musical groups singing for him. He led the ballot, getting enough votes to claim the top spot as head cheerleader.
But his second campaign a year later was a bust. He made an audacious bid for president of the student body, a job normally reserved for a law school student. Lott, only a junior, was too impatient to wait. He lost by 60 votes to a first-year law student.
"I was young. I jumped the gun," Lott admits. "I learned more when I lost that election than I learned from any election I won."
He didn't learn to play it safe, though, just to be better prepared.
Grooming for Congress
One Saturday morning in the spring of 1968, Lott was sitting in his Pascagoula law office writing a brief when he got a call from Rep. William M. Colmer, the 78-year-old Democrat who had represented the Gulf Coast for 40 years. Colmer was looking for a young assistant he could groom as a successor.
The congressman was an ardent segregationist who used his awesome power as chairman of the House rules committee to block civil rights legislation in the mid-1960s. But to Lott, he was a legend.
As Colmer's chief aide, Lott learned the inside tricks of House procedure better than many members of Congress: how to smooth the path for allies, how to stop opponents in their tracks.
When Colmer retired in 1972, Lott ran for the seat as a Republican. He didn't think he belonged in the same party as liberals like George McGovern and Tip O'Neill. Colmer called him foolhardy. There weren't any Republicans in Mississippi.
But Lott understood what was happening in Mississippi and elsewhere in the South. White voters were beginning to turn away from the Democratic Party. Richard Nixon carried the district with 87 percent of the vote; Lott clung to his coattails with 56 percent.
Thad Cochran, an Ole Miss graduate a few years older than Lott, also won his first bid for Congress as a Republican that year. They were colleagues - and rivals.
"We built the Republican party in Mississippi around the two of them," says Haley Barbour, who was a state GOP leader before he served as chairman of the Republican National Committee. "They were both young, attractive, dynamic and personable."
Lott was a fresh new face in Mississippi politics. But his voting record was the same as Colmer's, particularly on matters of race. During his 16 years in the House, he opposed busing to desegregate schools, the 1981 Voting Rights Act and the designation of Martin Luther King's birthday as a federal holiday. He even sent a letter championing federal tax exemptions for segregated schools - a position briefly adopted by the Reagan White House before an outcry forced its reversal.
Lott contends the letter "was done over my name, and in my absence and out of my knowledge. It was a mistake that shouldn't have happened." He makes no apologies for the rest of his record.
Others, however, see Lott as a holdover from Mississippi's past.
"Trent never bought out of the old ways of the Southern value system," says Hodding Carter III, a fellow Mississippian who served in the Carter administration. "He is not a 'new Southerner.' He is a repackaged 'old Southerner.'"
Former Maryland Rep. Kweisi Mfume, who served with Lott before taking the job as executive director of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, calls Lott's record on civil rights "troubling." But like most of Lott's House colleagues, Mfume feels as though he has a special relationship with Lott that will enable them to work through any differences.
Lott thrived in the boisterous, gregarious House, where his ready smile and affable nature made him many friends among Republicans and Democrats alike. He moved swiftly up the ranks, becoming the No. 2 Republican - minority whip - in 1981.
The whip's job demanded the same skills he'd demonstrated the night of the riots at Ole Miss: Find out where people are, round them up, try to persuade them to fall into line. Lott proved gifted at it. He had to be. Though the Republicans had captured the White House, they were still a minority in the House. They couldn't pass President Ronald Reagan's agenda without Democratic support. Lott put together a whip organization that worked with military precision to deliver the votes. By the end of Reagan's first term, Trent Lott was a force to be reckoned with.
Then the Senate
One of the few unhappy times in Lott's life, he says, arrived in January 1989 when he strode into the red-carpeted, gray-marble chamber of the Senate.
The hours were long and unpredictable compared with the brisk efficiency of the House. The senators were ornery and independent. There was none of the good-natured team play Lott was used to on the other side of the Capitol. Worst of all, for the first time in years, nobody in Washington was paying any attention to Trent Lott.
"I'd gone from the center of activity in the leadership of the House to being a back-bench, not-quite-ready-for-prime-time freshman senator," he says. "It was like being in the wilderness."
After two years of sulking, Lott went to work. He secured a low-level post in the GOP leadership and started collecting chits. Two years later, in 1994, he made perhaps the boldest move of his life. He challenged Republican Whip Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming, the trusted ally of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole.
It was a carefully calculated gamble. Lott knew his bid would be seen as a direct threat to Dole from a new generation of aggressive conservatives. If he lost, he could pay a price for being too ambitious. But he was confident that he had more than enough votes to win.
Even so, the election was a squeaker. After last-minute arm-twisting by Dole, Lott wound up winning by just one vote.
Last year, when Dole left the Senate to run for president, Lott was the next in line for his job as majority leader. Only one person stood in his way: Thad Cochran, his old rival from Mississippi. Cochran was older and had made the leap to the Senate first. He didn't want to concede the big prize without a fight.
But it was already too late. On the day Cochran announced his bid for majority leader, Lott pulled out the color-coded list he'd pTC been carrying for months in his pocket and showed it quickly to reporters. He already had nearly every vote locked up. It wasn't even close.
Lott for president?
On a crisp December morning about to yield some rare Mississippi snow, well-wishers are mobbing Trent Lott at the Biloxi Chamber of Commerce annual breakfast. It's his first local appearance since the fall elections and House Speaker Newt Gingrich's fall from grace.
With a Democrat still in control of the White House and Gingrich pushed to the sidelines, the junior senator from Mississippi is now the most important Republican in the country. Every piece of legislation on Capitol Hill, every presidential appointment requiring confirmation, every negotiation between the White House and Congress will bear his fingerprints, reflect his strategy, turn on his say-so.
Still, the home folks want to see him reach higher. Already, they are talking about Trent Lott for president.
"I'd like to see you run in four years," says Ben Newton, a student leader from Ole Miss in a typical greeting. Lott demurs, as usual. He knows he can't succeed as Senate majority leader - a job he likens to "herding cats" - if his colleagues think he's running for president.
"I'm excited by the job I have. I'm honored by it," he says as he heads home to Pascagoula for a secluded Christmas holiday with Tricia and their two grown kids, son Chet and daughter Tyler. "If I don't ever do anything else in my political life, I'll be happy."
Lott has reached a place and time perfectly suited to him: an orderly man determined to pull results out of the chaos.
Pub date: 2/23/97