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franklin county times

Senators now singing a bit off key

By Staff
May 31, 2001
My teenage daughter possessed of no small sense of humor when it comes to catching her father in an awkward moment made sure the photograph was placed front and center on our refrigerator door.
The shot was funny last summer. Now, it seems one of those paste-up fake photos you can buy at the amusement parks. From a political standpoint, it is the most ironic of photographs.
The setting is the front porch of the Neshoba County Fair cabin my family shares with the Gale Denley family on Founder's Square. Shown in the photo are then-U.S. Senator John Ashcroft (R-Mo.), then-U.S. Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) and then-Republican U.S. Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont.
Just out of frame was U.S. Senator Larry Craig of Idaho. My daughter was not impressed with the assembled political might.
Singing Senators
But she was more than amused that her father was in the photograph standing between Lott and Jeffords wearing a "Hooters" T-shirt, a Shreveport Times baseball cap, and a day's worth of Fair grunge. I had been cooking out on the grill earlier in the day and was sorely in need of a shower.
I took off from my cooking chores long enough to attend a concert by The Singing Senators down at the NCF racetrack. Guy Hovis, the former Lawrence Welk Show star and Lott's Ole Miss Sigma Nu fraternity brother, had warmed up the crowd on that hot afternoon.
Lott staffers and 2000 re-election campaign volunteers were busily passing out ice-cold bottles of "Trent Lott Water" packaged specially for the event  and Denley and I agreed that it was the best campaign gimmick for this venue that we'd ever seen.
As we drank our "Trent Lott Water," we watched Lott, Ashcroft, Craig and Jeffords take the stage in their guise as The Singing Senators. Their
appearance at the Fair just weeks before they would join their professed musical idols the Oak Ridge Boys on the stage of the Charley Pride Theatre in Branson, Mo., for a performance was one of Lott's major 2000 re-election campaign events in a race that was never, ever in doubt.
Photo op
But it made one heck of a photo opportunity. Miss Mississippi Christy May joined them on stage and they sang "Elvira," "Dig A Little Deeper In The Well," and a few patriotic and religious standards along the way, but it was Lott that worked the crowd like a lounge singer making jokes, making eye contact and making humble with his constituents.
It was a masterful performance. With Lott singing bass, Ashcroft singing baritone, Jeffords singing tenor and Craig singing lead, The Singing Senators actually could sing and could strike a rather nifty harmony that rested somewhere between traditional Southern gospel quartet singing and an amateur barbershop quartet.
In the heat of the day, facing a setting sun, The Singing Senators fast became The Sweating Senators. For the first time in my career in journalism, I saw Lott's normally tornado-proof hairdo mussed and soaking with sweat. He was working hard.
The quartet visited our cabin porch after the show. There was laughter all around and one could tell that Lott enjoyed a genuine friendship with his compatriots in the group.
Looking back, Denley and I were remarkably astute in our political assessment of the performance Lott, Ashcroft and Craig could get down we opined, but Jeffords would have trouble making most reputable Baptist church choirs in Mississippi. Jeffords' singing was just a little off-key from his conservative fellows in the group. He seemed uncomfortable in the Fairgrounds setting, while Craig and Ashcroft were eating it up, working the crowds as if they were competing for these Mississippi votes with Lott.
What a difference a few months makes.
Ashcroft is now U.S. Attorney General, Lott is now the U.S. Senate Minority Leader and Jeffords is now the Independent U.S. Senator from Vermont the man who single-handedly tossed the Republicans from power in the Senate and wounded Lott seriously in the process.
Only Craig still has the same credentials today that he had during his Neshoba County Fair appearance.
How ironic that Lott brought Jeffords home to show off his friend less than a year before his friend would bury a political knife between Lott's shoulder blades.
In 1996, when GOP conservatives in the Senate tried to block Jeffords from taking the chairmanship of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee one to which he was entitled by seniority but one that concerned Republican right-wingers Lott stepped in and saved Jeffords' hide.
What unity?
That stroke at party unity on Lott's behalf came months after The Singing Senators made their first appearance in a Kennedy Center charity performance in October 1995 and made their 1996 Republican National Convention appearance.
At some point, literally and figuratively, Lott and Jeffords stopped singing from the same sheet of music. Losing Lott's status as majority leader and Cochran's position as the chairman-to-be of the Senate Appropriations Committee in the wake of Jeffords' party change will hurt Mississippi, but it's not a mortal wound.
Both Cochran and Lott remain powerful forces in the Senate and the Democrats' razor-thin margin isn't enough to preclude them from horse-trading for votes to protect Mississippi's vital interests.
Cochran is among the Senate's most universally-respected members and Lott really may be more effective as a partisan guerrilla fighter shooting from the hills than as one who by position has to try to accommodate all sides.
But in terms of Mississippi's political clout in Washington these days, what Jeffords is singing of late is roughly akin to Roseanne Barr's now-infamous rendition of "The Star Spangled Banner."
Sid Salter is Perspective Editor and political columnist for The Clarion-Ledger. Write him at 201 Dogwood Drive, Forest, MS 39074, e-mail him at ssalter@jackson.gannett.com, or call 601-961-7000.