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A Lott Like Clinton?

Trent Lott The Senate leader and the President have much in common; they've even passed a few good laws. Now will they hold hands and jump?

By Dan Goodgame

TIME, March 10 -- Trent Lott, like Bill Clinton, learned much of what he needed to know about politics in junior high. But if Clinton appealed to the popular kids and made himself the center of attention, Lott made his way more quietly, by rounding up the strays one handshake and one favor at a time.

His family had just moved from the hills of upstate Mississippi to the shipyard town of Pascagoula, so Lott entered the seventh grade as a stranger. He was too slight for such sports as football, so he played tuba in the band. And he had such a space between his front teeth that he was nicknamed Gap.

But from those early days at Pascagoula Junior High, the well-starched and whip-smart boy started reaching out, discreetly helping others with homework. He paid special attention to the kids who, like himself, weren't athletic or attractive. "And you know what?" he says. "Turns out we were the majority."

By his senior year in high school, Lott was elected Mr. Everything: president of the student body and drama club, homecoming king, most popular, most likely to succeed, most polite and, of course, neatest. Even after Lott became a big man on campus, recalls his classmate Gaylen Roberts, he took time for "everybody, from the shy girls to the guys we would describe these days as gang members."

Ever since, even after he got his teeth fixed, Lott has advanced himself by assembling such snaggletoothed majorities. As the House Republican whip, or chief vote counter, during the early 1980s, Lott helped forge alliances with both the Boll Weevil Democrats, who were ignored by their party's liberal leaders, and with Newt Gingrich's angry band of G.O.P. radicals, who paid their party's elders as much deference as would Hell's Angels swaggering into a bar full of Shriners. Lott won the trust of both sides and remained the Happy Warrior: backslapping and optimistic, the bass of the Capitol's barbershop quartet.

Now Lott's misfits are the Republican majority, and he is their natural leader. His formative experiences entwine, like honeysuckle, with those of his chief interlocutor, Bill Clinton--like Lott, an ambitious, working-class son of the South. In a capital that cares more about power than sex, theirs will be the most intriguing coupling of the next four years.

Clinton is the master of the air, of the televised town meeting and the ad campaign. But now the key battles over spending and tax cuts shift to conference rooms, where Lott is master of the ground. He arrives well armed, as the only national leader to emerge from the last election with his power enhanced and his image unsplattered by campaign-finance scandals.



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