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He was United States Senate Majority Leader from June 12, 1996 through January 3, 2001. Vice President Albert A. Gore Jr.'s deciding vote gave Democrats the majority until January 20, 2001, when Richard B. Cheney became vice president. His deciding vote gave Republicans the majority until June 6, 2001, when Vermont Sen. James M. Jeffords announced his resignation from the Republican Party and decided to join the Democratic caucus as an independent. Lott subsequently became minority leader.
With the Republicans' victory in the 2002 Senate elections, Lott was once again slated to become majority leader when the 108th Congress convened on January 7, 2003. However, comments he made at a 100th birthday celebration for South Carolina Sen. (James) Strom Thurmond, a former segregation proponent, that appeared to be nostalgic for racial segregation made Lott's leadership position untenable, and he resigned from the leadership on December 20, 2002.
Lott attended college at University of Mississippi. He obtained an undergraduate degree in public administration and later a law degree. He served as a Field Representative of the University and was president of his fraternity. He was later criticized for his involvement in the all-white fraternity (which had a reputation for racism). Although eligible, Lott chose not to serve in the military during the Vietnam War.
Trent Lott entered public office in 1972, when he was elected to the House of Representatives from Mississippi. He served eight terms, then successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1988, filling the seat formerly held by retiring John C. Stennis. He was re-elected in 1994 and 2000. He became majority leader in 1996, following the resignation of Sen. Robert J. Dole from the Senate to pursue the Presidency.
He is currently a cosponsor of the bill to create a Director of National Intelligence. Despite his alleged racism, Lott has been a strong supporter of high levels of immigration from non-white and third world countries.
Controversy and resignation
Tremendous political controversy ensued following remarks Lott made on Dec. 5, 2002 at the 100th birthday party of Sen. J. Strom Thurmond. Thurmond ran for President of the United States in 1948 on the Dixiecrat (or States' Rights) ticket, whose primary campaign issue was the perpetuation of racial segregation in the United States. Lott said:
- "I want to say this about my state: When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."
At first, the comment, broadcast on C-SPAN, was largely ignored by the mainstream media but was widely discussed on political blogs such as Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, which also uncovered Lott's history of actively supporting segregation during college and making similar statements at various points throughout his career. Five days later the story was picked up by all the major news networks, and repeated and discussed extensively.
Lott's attempts to explain the remark grew from a mild dismissal as an off-the-cuff remark supporting Thurmond's national defense platform to an explicit repudiation of his racist past and assertions of support for affirmative action in a BET interview, by which time his political fate was sealed.
Once reported in newspapers and television, calls for his resignation as majority leader from both ends of the political spectrum grew.
Some Democrats and Republicans considered the remark unconscionable, or as Al Gore put it, "fundamentally racist", and many conservative groups and media outlets attempting to create an image for the Republican Party as inclusive of minorities were quick to distance themselves from Lott and criticize the incident. Centrist Democrats and Republicans at first defended Lott, insisting the remarks had been blown out of proportion.
After President George W. Bush voiced his own harsh criticism of Lott's remarks: "Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized and rightly so. Every day that our nation was segregated was a day our nation was unfaithful to our founding ideals," it was evident that it would be difficult for Lott to remain majority leader, although the official White House line was that Lott did not need to resign.
Lott later agreed with the President's speech. In the aforementioned BET interview, he said, "Segregation is a stain on our nation’s soul... Segregation and racism are immoral."
Under pressure from Senate colleagues, and having lost the support of the White House, Lott resigned as Senate Republican Leader on December 20, 2002. Sen. William H. Frist from Tennessee was later elected to the leadership position.
Senator Lott was chosen by his collegues as Chairman of the Senate Committee on Rules after the controversy. Some of his critics for the original remarks have noted that this position still carries a great deal of power, and that conservatives and Republicans were mainly using the whole controversy to get rid of a leader they regarded as weak, particularly in the conduct of the 1998 impeachment trial of President Bill Clinton.
- Trent Lott's Senate homepage
- Military Non-service
- Lott Decried for Part of Salute to Thurmond, The Washington Post, Saturday, December 7, 2002; Page A06.
- Sen. Lott Fights to Save Post as Leader, The Washington Post, Saturday, December 14, 2002; Page A01
- Lott Remarks on Thurmond Echoed 1980 Words, The Washington Post, Wednesday, December 11, 2002; Page A06
- Sen. Lott's New Spin The Washington Post, Saturday, December 14, 2002; Page A24
- Talking Points Memo, a political weblog, has posted Lott's racially-inflected Fall 1984 interview with the Southern Partisan and discusses his long-standing association with a paleoconservative group, the Council of Conservative Citizens
- Joe Conason's Journal: Lott's involvement with the neo-Confederate movement, racists and extreme rightists goes way back, Salon.com, December 12, 2002.
- Bloggers Catch What Washington Post Missed, The Guardian (UK), Saturday, December 21, 2002.
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| width="30%" |Preceded by:
Tom Daschle | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Senate Minority Leader
January 3, 2001–January 20, 2001 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
|- style="text-align: center;"
| width="30%" |Preceded by:
Tom Daschle | width="40%" style="text-align: center;" |Senate Majority Leader
January 20, 2001–June 6, 2001 | width="30%" |Succeeded by:
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