AUTHOR: SALTER

For Mississippi U.S. Senator Trent Lott, it really is the best of times. Of course, as has become almost rudimentary for those at the very pinnacle of political power in America since Watergate, the best of times signal at best a reporter's guided trip down memory lane and at worst a full-scale archaeological dig by the national media.

This month, Lott was the beneficiary of both journalistic approaches.

Less than a decade ago - after scaling the power structure to the post of House Minority Whip in a 16-year stint as the congressman from Mississippi's Fifth District - Lott was elected this state's junior senator.

In winning that 1988 Senate race, Lott succeeded not only a Mississippi political legend, but a man known at the apex of his 41-year Capitol Hill career as "the conscience of the Senate" in the late John C. Stennis. In 1994, Lott's first re-election bid was easier than a cakewalk. An insider's insider, Lott made short work of the Senate power structure, as he had in the House.

Then came 1996 - the year Lott's political ship not only came in, but took up most of the marina and a sizable portion of the harbor to boot. When former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole made his fateful decision to resign his Senate post to focus his full attention on his presidential bid, Lott was ready.

Even at the expense of leap-frogging senior Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran in the process, Lott climbed the final rung of the ladder to congressional power when he was elected Republican Majority Leader.

And in a state built on the political legends of congressional figures with incredible seniority, Lott has with the taking of that post scaled heights of political power that puts him at the top of heap. Not Stennis, not the late Jamie Whitten (known in his career as the "permanent Secretary of Agriculture"), not even Big Jim Eastland possessed the kind of raw political power that Lott now holds.

Indeed, it is comparisons to Eastland the Democratic Party's version of an in-state political kingmaker operating from Washington that Lott drew after his unabashed dabbling in the Third District congressional race in 1996 when one of his former aides, Chip Pickering, was chosen to succeed another Mississippi political legend named Sonny Montgomery.

Now one of the most familiar political faces in America and the darling of the national Sunday morning political shows and the national evening news sound-byte alike, Lott is considered a serious GOP presidential contender in 2000 and one of the three most politically powerful men in America.

The fruits of that political success brought Lott an in-depth analysis piece in "Time" magazine earlier this month that drew broad and not-so-broad comparisons between Lott's background and that of the current occupant at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

The "Time" article was written by Pascagoula native and fellow University of Mississippi alumnus Dan Goodgame. From that perspective, Goodgame penned a biting but fair look at Lott's rise to power replete with an account of a less than idyllic childhood and a rather noble struggle by a young man to pull himself up by the bootstraps.

In drawing comparisons between Clinton and Lott, Goodgame pointed to the fact that both men didn't serve in Vietnam, have little work experience outside government service and the fact that both are supremely ambitious.

While Goodgame didn't characterize Lott in singularly glowing terms, it was about as fair a treatment as a politician could get from a national magazine. If Lott wasn't satisfied with the piece, he should have been.

The second big ticket journalistic review of Lott's career came in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. In that publication, the South's largest and some would argue most respected newspaper, journalist Jim Yardley served up a heaping helping of a story that for most Mississippi newspapers was yesterday's news.

Yardley focused his piece on the nearest thing to a scandal in Lott's background the use of his influence in the 1980's in the personal, professional and political fortunes of the black former owner of a Gulf Coast contract security company named Isadore Hyde.

Hyde owned a security company bidding for a contested NASA security contract. Lott intervened on Hyde's behalf. With help from Lott, Hyde qualified for almost $1 million in Small Business Administration loans from 1980-85.

Lott's mother was hired by Hyde Security in 1984. Hyde later went bankrupt in the midst of a federal investigation and eventually pleaded guilty to false government billings and tax fraud. As part of that investigation, a government whistle blower implicated Lott in alleged improprieties involving his mother's employment and allegedly receiving political contributions from Hyde that were in part billed to the government as part of security contracts.

The Atlanta newspaper article suggested that former U.S. Attorney George Phillips was less than fastidious in his handling of a federal grand jury probe into the Hyde affair.

Bottom line? The Mississippi media was all over the Hyde story in the early 1990's. The existence of the probe is common knowledge in Mississippi. What isn't known beyond Mississippi's borders is that George Phillips and his able assistants successfully prosecuted more public corruption cases during his tenure than anyone who's held the post, before or since.

The grand jury didn't find Lott guilty of anything. He was cleared in the federal probes of the Hyde affair.

The Atlanta paper hinted that if Clinton had his Whitewater, Lott has his Hyde Security. Ying and yang. Tit for tat.

Nice angle on a news story. But the facts are clear that the story doesn't hold water, white or otherwise. A Mississippi grand jury already said so.

Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist and editor of the Scott County Times in Forest.

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