But now, more than eight years after leaving office, he is promoting the idea that it’s good for the nation when people develop strong working relationships, and maybe even friendships, across party lines.
“One of the big problems in Washington now is they don’t know each other,” Lott, 74, said last week at the Old Capitol Museum in Jackson. He spoke during a program sponsored by the Mississippi Department of Archives and History.
Lott was promoting “Crisis Point,” a book he co-wrote with former Sen. Tom Daschle, 68, of South Dakota, who led the Senate Democrats at the same time Lott led the Senate Republicans. The book was published in January and is subtitled: “Why we must — and how we can — overcome our broken politics in Washington and Across America.”
The two men traded off the titles of majority leader and minority leader as the two parties swapped control of the chamber from the mid-1990s until the middle of the first decade of this century.
“Times were different then,” Lott said. “You know, we did work together. And we got a lot of things done. I’ve been accused of being a dealmaker. I plead guilty. What that means to me is get something done for your country and for your state.”
Lott was born in Grenada and spend part of his childhood in the Delta’s Carroll County, where his family had lived for generations. He was still in elementary school when he and his parents moved to Pascagoula because his father took a job as a pipefitter at the Ingalls shipyard — a union job, Lott noted in his speech.
Lott earned his undergraduate degree and law degree from the University of Mississippi, then worked for U.S. Rep. William Colmer, a conservative Democrat from Pascagoula. When Colmer chose not to seek re-election in 1972, Lott won that south Mississippi seat. He served 16 years in the House before winning an open Senate seat in 1988.
Lott had counted votes as Republican whip in the House, and said he went to the Senate as a “partisan warrior.”
“It was a destructive attitude: ‘I’m going to change this place, or I’m going to tear it up,'” he said. “And after about six months, I had figured out things ain’t working real good. I’m making people mad, I’m not getting anything done.”
He said he shifted his approach and spent time learning the Senate operating rules, which he called “unintelligible.” He had one-on-one meetings with 60 senators, including Democrat Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts. Six and a half years later, Lott’s Republican colleagues chose him to be their leader in the chamber.
Lott said he and Daschle learned to trust each other, and they kept open lines of communication. On each of their desks sat a red phone with a line that connected them directly. Lott said they used the hotline to avoid walking through crowds of reporters in the Capitol hallways, and even to circumvent their own staffers.
Lott and Daschle are both now working as Washington lobbyists.
Lott said members of Congress could strengthen their working relationships if they moved their families to the Washington area, as he and his wife did with their children.
“Now they come to Washington on Monday night or Tuesday morning, and the first question they have is, ‘What time can I leave Thursday night?'” Lott said. “You can’t run government in a day and a half.”
» Emily Wagster Pettus has covered Mississippi government and politics since 1994. Follow her on Twitter: http://twitter.com/EWagsterPettus.
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