Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, a Mississippi Republican, is settling scores in his new book, Herding Cats: A Life in Politics. His successor, Sen. Bill Frist, a Tennessee Republican, is one target. Another target is the writer of a loathsome Internet column called … Chatterbox!
It's attracting wide notice that Lott portrays Frist as playing Eve Harrington to his Margo Channing:
I considered Frist's power grab a personal betrayal. When he entered the Senate in 1995, I had taken him under my wing—just as other powerful senators had done for me. He was my protégé, and I helped him get plum assignments and committee positions. I had pushed him to President Bush. We'd been friends off and on the floor, and that's pretty rare in a governmental body loaded with lone wolves and immense egos.
When I learned of his move, I felt, and still feel, that he was one of the main manipulators of the whole scenario. No other senator with stature would have run against me. In fact, they all took themselves out of the running because of close relationships to me. If Frist had not announced exactly when he did, as the fire was about to burn out, I would still be majority leader of the Senate today.
But Bill Frist didn't even have the courtesy to call and tell me personally that he was going to run.
Frist subsequently gave Lott two influential committee assignments, on the rules and intelligence committees, and half-rehabilitated Lott by making him a close adviser. In return, Lott offers nothing but thinly veiled contempt. Lott says it was he, not Frist, who cooked up the proposed "nuclear option" to eliminate Senate filibusters through manipulation of Senate rules. Clearly relishing that the press has lately portrayed Frist as weak and ineffective, he piles on:
Our styles as leaders were different. Frist tended to be cautious and risk averse; I was much more aggressive, ready, and willing to roll people if that's what it took to get the job done. … There's no use dwelling on how he got where he is or how I got where I am. That's how it is. You just deal with it and move on.
For good measure, while plugging the book on the Aug. 21 Meet the Press, Lott luxuriated in uncertainty when asked whether Frist had the character to be president: "I'd have to think about that. … I probably would lean toward some of the others."
Lott is clearly betting that Frist won't be Senate majority leader much longer. By contrast, when he singles me out for condemnation, it's because he views it as self-evident that anyone who writes for the Internet is a slug. In Lott's view, the media glommed on to the casually racist comment that led to his downfall—if you've forgotten the details, click here—only because of Internet hysteria:
[I]n the lower reaches of journalism, a small fire had been set. In the past few years, the growing number of so-called news sites on the Internet had been the catalyst for a number of political free-for-alls, including the Lewinsky scandal. But they had never shaped and perverted a story so grotesquely as they did mine.
Lott then proceeds to describe my central role in this purported distortion. In doing so, he commits quite a few distortions of his own. One that I know will irritate Mark Halperin and his colleagues at ABC News' "The Note" is that Lott credits me with breaking the story, when in fact I was responding to an item that had appeared earlier that day in "The Note." This was made clear in my column, which Lott (or his ghostwriter) quotes at length. Lott's difficulty appears to be that he (or his ghostwriter) misread the posted time of the column as 1:54 a.m., when, as you can see, it was actually posted at 1:54 p.m.
I won't deny that I jumped on the story early; indeed, for the past three years I've felt a wee bit grumpy that I got very little credit for doing so (mainly, I think, because I wrote about it only once and then departed for vacation in the Virgin Islands with my wife). But let's have Lott tell the story:
The online conflagration actually had begun at 1:54 a.m. [sic] on Friday morning [sic], when Timothy Noah, a columnist for the Microsoft Network's magazine Slate, posted a story headlined: BLURTED OUT CONVICTION OF THE WEEK: TRENT LOTT. WHAT'S A LITTLE SEGREGATION[ISM] AMONG FRIENDS? Along with a string of derogatory words …
Time out! What derogatory words? Except for the admittedly derogatory headline and subhead, which Lott has already quoted, the column contained no further comment at all. Ordinarily I'm not one to withhold editorial judgments, but in this case it seemed to me that Lott's praise for Strom Thurmond's segregationist presidential candidacy in 1948 ("We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had of followed our lead we wouldn't have had all these problems. …") was so self-evidently ghastly that all I needed to do was pair it with a snippet from Thurmond's best-known campaign speech that year ("[T]here's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the Nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools," etc.).
Noah offered sights and sounds. With a press of a computer mouse, Internet browsers could see the C-Span video of my remarks. One more click, and you could hear the audio of Strom Thurmond's 1948 Dixiecrat acceptance speech.
Noah didn't need to write much more. With some fancy audiovisual aids, he had linked my words at the gala to a set of fifty year-old virulent remarks I was hearing for the first time.
Apparently it was a dirty trick—all too typical of the scurrilous Internet—that I provided readers with the means to verify independently the words I'd attributed to Lott and to Thurmond. As for Lott's professed unfamiliarity with Thurmond's famous words, I'm at a loss to know how Lott could identify them (correctly) as coming from Thurmond's acceptance speech at the Dixiecrat convention when neither I nor the NPR site I linked to said so. Could it be that Lott, a Deep South conservative, has some knowledge of his region's political history, and that his claim to be ignorant of Thurmond's words is … untrue?
His column was labeled, appropriately, "Chatterbox."
Now that's just mean. Do I make fun of him for being called "Trent"?