When Sen. Trent Lott announced he was leaving Congress, all the stories emphasized the most infamous moment in his career: his remarks five years ago that glorified Strom Thurmond and the South's segregationist past. The furor cost him his job as Republican leader and rightly so, because it was not an isolated incident.
As a student leader at the University of Mississippi in the early 1960s, Lott fought to keep his fraternity lily-white. As a young lawyer and budding politician, he pioneered the Republican Party's "Southern strategy," playing on racial fears to drive conservative whites away from the Democrats.
His first job in Washington was for a rabid racist, Democratic Rep. William Colmer, but when Lott won Colmer's seat in 1972, he ran as a Republican. His voting record on civil-rights legislation was consistently terrible, and he even admitted in a 1997 interview with Time magazine: "Yes, you could say I favored segregation then. I don't now."
Still, Lott's propensity for race-baiting politics should not stand for his entire career. For one thing, he seemed truly contrite after the Thurmond incident and repudiated his past policies. "I've said things and done things on race-related issues that weren't intended to be hurtful but that I now realize were hurtful," he told Time.
Moreover, Lott's legacy should include his card-carrying membership in a rapidly shrinking species on Capitol Hill: professional legislators. Sure, he's a conservative, but he can also be a pragmatist, working across party lines to find reasonable solutions to pressing problems like immigration.
We covered Lott during most of his career in the House and then after his election to the Senate in 1988. He represented a district on Mississippi's Gulf Coast where Cokie has relatives, and we always found him to be a smart, engaging and candid source. The Senate today is a largely dysfunctional institution, unable to pass even the most basic legislation to keep the government running. The loss of Trent Lott will make things worse, not better.
Lott is leaving for many reasons. At age 66, he knows that he has only a few years left to make money in the private sector. His sudden decision to quit, with four years left on his term, seems partly motivated by new ethics rules that make it harder for ex-lawmakers to lobby their former colleagues.
Lott revived his career, winning the party's No. 2 job last year, but he hates being in the minority and knows the GOP has little chance of retaking the Senate any time soon. While his seat will probably stay Republican, Democrats could replace his departing colleagues in Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia, making the GOP even weaker in the next Congress.
For professional legislators like Lott, the toxic partisanship poisoning the capital today makes their job very difficult and dispiriting. Ideologues in both parties savage anyone who even hints at working with the rival camp. As Republican Sen. John Thune, Lott's deputy, explained: "He's just sort of reached the end of the line in terms of what he can do here."
That's a damning comment about the current state of the Congress, and the battle over immigration reform illustrates how bad things have become. A strong proponent of the compromise bill that would have combined tougher border enforcement with a path to citizenship for undocumented workers, Lott told the Senate last spring, "The current situation in America with legal and illegal immigration (is) intolerable and unacceptable."
The compromise bill, he maintained, was hardly perfect but it was the only practical option. In a statement that could serve as a credo for the lost tribe of lawmakers, he added: "We've got to do it. We've got to do it as good as we can. We've got to do it right now."
The plea failed. The bill was shot down in a hail of gunfire from conservative critics, leading Lott to protest: "Talk radio and one-hit-wonder Internet gurus are running America. We have to deal with that problem."
Lott is right about that. He understands that compromise is an essential part of politics. He understands that respecting Congress as an institution means dealing with fellow lawmakers representing different regions, backgrounds and viewpoints. He understands that perfection is seldom possible and that, often, "we've got to do it as good as we can."
That's why Ted Kennedy, who also understands these principles, called Trent Lott a "worthy opponent." And that's why Congress will be a poorer place without him.
Steve Roberts' latest book is "My Fathers' Houses: Memoir of a Family" (William Morrow, 2005). Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.