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Former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott Remembers John McCain


Senator John McCain reveled in his identity as a self-styled maverick. Perhaps his most famous piece of legislation, the campaign finance bill known as McCain-Feingold, angered leaders in his Republican Party. Among those most frustrated with the bill were current Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and also then-Majority Leader Trent Lott. And Senator Lott joins us from his home in Mississippi to look back on the career of John McCain and talk about his relationship with him. Senator, thanks for taking the time this morning.

TRENT LOTT: Glad to be with you. And we have truly lost a warrior and a patriot in the finest sense of the words. And I want to extend my sympathy to his mother and to his family. I know that they're going to miss him greatly.

GREENE: Well, it's also a man whose family has roots in your home state of Mississippi. It sounds like your family and his go back a long, long time, including in politics.

LOTT: Yes, absolutely, it goes back probably 160 years. And the McCains live very close to my mother's family, the Watsons and the Lotts up the hill. And, you know, they were involved in politics. I had a forefather that ran for state treasurer in, I think, 1889, and he was endorsed by the Carroll County Sheriff, John S. McCain. And then when my World War II veteran uncle ran for the state senate in 1952, his campaign manager was Joe McCain, John's uncle. So we have been intertwined, and I think that's part of why John McCain and I had the relationship we did. We had disagreements on campaign finance reform. I blocked him many times from getting it done. And then when we lost the majority, he worked with Harry Reid and Tom Daschle and got it done anyway. And if I were going to write a book now on what it really means to be a leader or profiles in courage or determination, John McCain would have to have a chapter.

GREENE: Wow. So you went up against him, and you had some pretty heated exchanges, heated rivalries.

LOTT: Oh, yeah.

GREENE: And yet you've come to respect him so much that you want to write about him in a book.

LOTT: Well, I think maybe it's our Scottish backgrounds. You know, we fought each other, and then if somebody attacked one of us, we united and fought them. But the good thing about John, because of his personality - and I hope maybe mine - even though we disagreed violently and had real debates on a number of issues, I never left it where I couldn't come back the next day and say, hey, John, let's get this done. And he'd be there. And every time I've ran for leadership in the House, as Republican whip in the Senate, as whip and as leader, John McCain supported me. And when John ran for president and got the nomination in 2008, I guess it was, I was out there early for him. So we had our disagreements, but, you know, that was when you could disagree amicably and come back the next day and get something else done.

GREENE: I wanted to ask you, is that still the case in the Senate?

LOTT: Well, it's a lot harder now. My son asked me a lot about, you know, is it harder now than it was? And yeah, it is. But times have changed, people have changed, and the media has changed. It's a lot tougher now to find a way to get to common ground and get things done for the country. There was one place where John and I did work together. It was on immigration reform. I told my people in Mississippi, it wasn't just about illegal immigration; it's also about a legal system where we get people that we need that can't come into the country legally. It's very difficult to do that. And I was very disappointed when we did not get that done in 2007. It was very - a very disappointing experience. But I worked closely with John McCain, Jon Kyl, Lindsey Graham, Dianne Feinstein and Ted Kennedy to try to get that done.

GREENE: I want to listen to a little bit of McCain's voice. This was a speech to the Senate last year after he was diagnosed with cancer. He took time to really chastise members of this body.


JOHN MCCAIN: We've been spinning our wheels on too many important issues because we keep trying to find a way to win without help from across the aisle. That's an approach that's been employed by both sides - mandating legislation from the top down without any support from the other side with all the parliamentary maneuvers that requires. We're getting nothing done, my friends. We're getting nothing done.

GREENE: Wow, just the frustration there. I mean, how much did the partisanship weigh on him as you would talk to him about this?

LOTT: Oh, I think it weighed on him a lot, and it weighs on me a lot. You know, when I was majority leader - and John was there - I worked closely with Tom Daschle, who was the Democratic leader at the time, to get things done - and worked with Bill Clinton as well as George W. Bush. But it's a lot tougher now. You know, there's a resistance to try to get anything done. I was pleased, though. Last week, they did come together on a bipartisan bill funding Defense, Labor, Education and Health and Human Services, so that was a glimmer of hope. But I understand his frustration.

And most senators feel that way, as well as House members. House members complain that they've passed hundreds of bills - literally - the language in the Senate - because of the slow motion that is being imposed by, you know, the minority and others that don't agree with trying to get things done. But that is the goal of the Congress - to find a way to come together to deal with the important issues of our country. You know, in the '90s, we did get a balanced budget. We passed Safe Drinking Water, portability insurance. So, you know, like, right now, we need an infrastructure bill. We need highways and bridges. We need water and sewer. The Congress should turn to that as soon as they can (unintelligible).

GREENE: And you're talking about things where there seems to be so much agreement, and yet it never gets - can I just ask you Senator - you and Senator McCain both from a pre-Tea Party, pre-Trump Republican Party, an era where it seemed like most Republicans would refrain from directly criticizing the president. Do you see that faction of the party having much of a voice at all anymore?

LOTT: No. It seems to have been lost on us, you know? I mean, we - you're dealing with human beings. I remember one time I think I called President Clinton a brat on "Meet The Press." I called him Monday morning and said, hey man, I'm sorry. I overspoke. You know, I hope you'll forgive me on that. He ah, said, forget it. Do those kinds of conversations happen anymore? The willingness to just use terrible language - that's - you know, I gave a speech to the Metro Jackson Area Chamber of Commerce recently, and I said, you know, the good, the bad, the ugly - the good is they did get a tax bill; the bad is, you know, they're arguing over things, and the ugly is the language has just gotten so coarse; it very - makes me very uncomfortable.

GREENE: Former senator - former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott speaking to us about the Senate and also his relationship with the late John McCain, who died over the weekend. Senator, thank you very much for the time.

LOTT: Thank you. All right. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.