A new lord takes giant strides up Capitol Hill

Trent Lott, the Senate majority leader, is a man made to be a mediator, writes Rupert Cornwell

Washington - The United States has no post of leader of the opposition. But if it did, then there is scant argument over who would fill it. Not Bob Dole of course, vanquished by Bill Clinton in November and now septuagarian superstar of the late-night comedy circuit; and certainly not the chastened 1997 model Newt Gingrich, humbled by ethical lapses despite the distinction of being the first Republican since the Depression era to win consecutive terms as Speaker. Instead, step forward Trent Lott. Trent who? The 105th Congress which opened this week should soon dispel any lingering ignorance.

As Senate majority leader, the post he took over from Mr Dole, Chester Trent Lott is lord of Capitol Hill and the most powerful Republican voice in the land. He will be his party's chief negotiator with the President and prime shaper of the Senate's business. Bipartisanship is the catchphrase of the hour. Whether word is transformed into deed depends on him, at least as much as Mr Clinton. And thus far the omens are good.

When he defeated his fellow Mississippian Thad Cochran to become Majority leader last June, Mr Lott was expected to be far more confrontational than the pragmatic and non-ideological Mr Dole. Was he not a former Democrat with the special fire of the converted, an obdurate who in his first term as a Congressman in 1974 was one of the very few to reject impeachment of Richard Nixon until almost the very end? But things have not worked out like that.

In one way certainly, Trent Lott is an emblem of his times, and the extraordinary grip of Dixie on the pinnacles of American politics. An Arkansan holds the White House, a Tennesseean the vice-Presidency; the Speaker is a Georgian, and the House Majority leader a Texan. And now another Deep Southerner at the helm of the Senate. The rest though is paradox.

Mr Lott may be an unabashed conservative, opposed to abortion, gun control and strong supporter of a balanced budget amendment and a reduced role for government. But he is also a mediator who seems, oddly, to have learnt that skill much as Bill Clinton did, as a boy forced to intercede to keep the peace between his mother and an often drunken father (the couple would later divorce).

He is calculating and openly ambitious; never more so than when he successfully ran for the second ranking post of Republican Whip in 1994, after just one term in the Senate. But Mr Lott is also gregarious and widely liked. He can sport a Southern drawl befitting one who grew up in Pascagoula on Mississippi's Gulf Coast - but can talk faster than a Brooklyn car salesman and dresses like a duke.

Above all, colleagues say, he is an organiser and an operator, scarcely less skilled at building legislative coalitions than Mr Dole himself: in short a compromiser, as he must be in an institution of 100 individuals of whom a true majority is not the arithmetical 51, nor the present Republican strength of 55, but the 60 votes required to cut off a filibuster. Managing a body each of whose members are wont to look into a mirror and see a future President has been likened to herding cats or - to use Mr Lott's preferred metaphor - "putting bullfrogs in a wheelbarrow".

And he might be forgiven some delusions of his own. His relative youth (Mr Lott is only 55), the eminence of his job and his smoothness in front of the cameras virtually guarantees him a place on the list of potential Republican Presidential aspirants in 2000 or thereafter. For the moment though, in a system of divided government, most important is how he works with the present occupant of the White House, who is of course no mean operator himself. And the start has been promising. Buttressed by a reinvented moderate called Bill Clinton and the dealmaker Trent Lott, that famous "vital centre" might just prevail after all.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

Join the tequila gold rush

The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
12 best statement wallpapers

12 best statement wallpapers

Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

Paul Scholes column

Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?