Lott finds battle for Senate unity as easy as herding cats

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YOU CAN tell from his immaculately groomed hair, as smooth and neat as a dog at Cruft's, that Trent Lott is a fastidious man. He even irons his shirts again when they come back from the cleaners, writes Andrew Marshall.

Yet Mr Lott cannot keep everything so tidy. As the Republican chief in the US Senate, he has had to contend with the increasingly unmanageable task of keeping senators together as they march towards the end of the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton.

It is evident that he is not entirely enjoying the task. Using a metaphor once employed by the veteran political arranger Howard Baker, he likened it last week to "herding cats".

He has striven to maintain cordial relations with Tom Daschle, who leads the Democrats in the Senate, but that is not the main task. Mr Lott knows that united, the Republicans cannot be defeated: they have 55 seats to the Democrats' 45. The errant felines that Mr Lott has had to keep in line have principally been his own.

He spent most of his productive time for the last week closeted in an oak-panelled room behind the Senate Chamber, caucusing with the Republicans and trying to keep them in line. He knows that the major mistake made in the House of Representatives was to let the party fall apart, and he saw what happened: there was a revolt, and Newt Gingrich, the party's leader in the House, was ousted.

But for all the headlines he has earned over the last few weeks as a skilful manager and conciliator, Mr Lott, 57, is far from being a mainstream character. Mississippi, his home state, is a place where politics has been a deadly and divisive game for much of the last century, and Mr Lott has his dark secrets.

It emerged last year that he had addressed a group called the Council of Conservative Citizens. Though this may sound like a group that meets on Fridays at Dorking Golf Club over sherry, it is rather more extreme. Some members have far-right, anti-Semitic and racist views.

The group itself has been called in the US press an heir to the White Citizens Councils, sinister groups that fought desegregation in the days when Mississippi was on the edge of a second civil war. Mr Lott denied all knowledge of its views.

The senator has worked on an impeachment before. During the House hearings on Richard Nixon in 1974, he was a young congressman from the Gulf Coast, the youngest on the Judiciary Committee. He defended the President longer than virtually anyone else, which makes his present job all the more ironic.

Until last week, the reviews of his performance had all been favourable. Now, they are a little more wobbly. The trial is going on (and on, and on) and some of his own troops are not happy.

It remains to be seen if Mr Lott can emerge with his reputation intact, or if the long shadow of Bill Clinton will fall over him as it did over Mr Gingrich.