Hello, Mr. President. This is Lazarus speaking." That is how Trent Lott answered a phone call last week from George W. Bush, the man who helped force him out of the Senate's top job in 2002 after Lott praised Strom Thurmond's 1948 segregationist presidential campaign. Maybe Lott is selling himself short. After all, Lazarus was in the tomb for only four days, but it took Lott, 65, four years to mount the improbable comeback that culminated in his election last Wednesday as minority whip, the second most powerful G.O.P. position in the Senate. But if Bush, who called from Air Force One en route to Singapore, was spooked by the Mississippi Senator's resurrection, he did his best to hide it. Lott says Bush laughed off the Lazarus analogy and said, "Well, we're looking forward to working with you."
Why would Senate Republicans choose the controversial Lott after an electoral drubbing that saw them lose, among other things, the hard-fought progress they had made with nonwhite voters, especially African Americans? And why pick someone who is known to have an ax to grind with the White House at a time when the party should regroup and unify?
The answer is that Lott won (by one vote over Tennessee's Lamar Alexander) because he spent the past four years quietly making himself as useful as possible to his colleagues. He lent his old strengths as a backroom dealmaker and a master of arcane Senate rules to sometimes thankless tasks. He not only won back allies that way, but he also sharpened the exact skills that his party will need for the next two years, when its main goal will be to stop Democratic bills from seeing the light of day, let alone the President's desk. As the whip--a position named after the switch-wielding valet at fox hunts who keeps the hounds in line--Lott will keep his party disciplined and frustrate the Democrats with amendments and filibusters. "He understands the rules. He's a strong negotiator," says New Hampshire's Senator John Sununu. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says he's "the smartest legislative politician I've ever met." Even Senator Ted Kennedy calls him a "worthy opponent."
And smooth relations with the Bush White House aren't the priority they used to be. In the upcoming Congress, with every Republican Senator seemingly running for re-election or for President, proof of one's independence from the White House will be an asset, not a liability, especially if Bush's approval ratings remain mired in the mid-30s. As he was campaigning for the whip job, Lott says, he told his colleagues that when it came to White House pressure, "there's nothing they can do to me or for me that they haven't already done. I'm not mad, but I am a little bit of a liberated guy these days."
The Democrats are the ones who should fear Lott the most: they are desperate to pass bills that will show voters they can govern. That might explain why some of them are already trying to reach across the aisle to him. While Mel Watt of the House Congressional Black Caucus released a statement after Lott's election saying, "The sting of Trent Lott's hurtful words are unlikely to expire anytime soon," Barack Obama, the freshman Senator from Illinois, seemed not to carry a grudge as he left the Senate floor the day after Lott's victory. "[Lott] obviously paid a price and comes back a little bit wiser, as all of us hopefully do after a mistake," Obama said.