Trent Lott entered public office in 1972, when he was elected to the House of Representatives from Mississippi. He served eight terms, then successfully ran for the U.S. Senate in 1988, filling the seat formerly held by retiring John C. Stennis. He was re-elected in 1994 and 2000. He became majority leader in 1996, following the resignation of Senator Bob Dole from the Senate to pursue the Presidency.
Tremendous political controversy ensued following remarks Senator Lott made on December 5, 2002 at the 100th birthday party of Senator Strom Thurmond. Thurmond ran for President of the United States in 1948 on the Dixiecrat ticket, whose primary campaign issue was the perpetuation of racial segregation in the United States. Lott said:
The comment, broadcast on CSPAN[?], was largely ignored by the mainstream media but was widely discussed on political blogs such as Josh Marshall[?]'s Talking Points Memo[?], which also uncovered Lott's history of actively supporting segregation during college and making similar statements at various points throughout his career. Five days later the story was picked up by the mainstream media.
Lott comments on the remark grew from a mild dismissal as an off-the-cuff remark supporting Thurmond's national defense platform to an explicit repudiation of his racist past and assertions of support for affirmative action in a BET interview, by which time his political fate was sealed.
Once reported in newspapers and television, calls for his resignation as Majority Leader from both ends of the political spectrum grew.
Some Democrats and Republicans considered the remark unconscionable, or as Al Gore put it, "fundamentally racist", and many conservative groups and media outlets attempting to create an image for the Republican Party as inclusive of minorities were quick to distance themselves from Lott and criticize the incident. Centrist Democrats and Republicans at first defended Lott insisted the remarks had been blown out of proportion.
After President George W. Bush voiced his own harsh criticism of Lott's remarks: "Any suggestion that the segregated past was acceptable or positive is offensive, and it is wrong. Recent comments by Senator Lott do not reflect the spirit of our country. He has apologized and rightly so. Every day that our nation was segregated was a day our nation was unfaithful to our founding ideals," it was evident that it would be difficult for Lott to remain majority leader, although the official White House line was that Lott did not need to resign.
Lott later agreed with the President's speech. In the aforementioned BET interview, he said, "Segregation is a stain on our nationís soul.... Segregation and racism are immoral."
Under pressure from Senate colleagues, and without the backing of the White House, Lott resigned as Senate Republican Leader on December 20, 2002. Fellow senator Bill Frist was later elected to the leadership position.