Mississippi Senator Trent Lott at today's press conference announcing his retirement from politics. With a departure from politics, Lott is an early favorite to become the next chancellor at his alma mater, the University of Mississippi (AP photo via Washington Times)
Trent Lott's sudden retirement from the Senate took many observers by surprise. He won re-election by a large margin barely a year ago, and the voters of Mississippi were prepared to send him back to Washington as long as he wanted to serve.
Like John Stennis before him, Lott had become the dominant figure in state politics, and the man who ensured a steady flow of federal dollars to various projects in Mississippi. Ingalls Shipbuilding in Pascagoula--Lott's hometown--receives billions of dollars in Navy contracts largely through the efforts of the state's junior senator. In an era of base closings and draw downs, Mississippi's military installations have prospered during Mr. Lott's tenure in Washington. And it was no surprise that his alma mater (the University of Mississippi) was selected to host one of three presidential debates next year.
Despite his occasional slips--including that infamous testimonial to Strom Thurmond in 2002--Trent Lott was well-positioned to represent his home state for years (perhaps decades) to come. That's why many observers expressed shock at his sudden decision to step down, and pursue "other opportunities."
As to what those opportunities might be, there has been some speculation that Lott may become a lobbyist. A new law (which takes effect in January) requires retiring Senators to wait two years before joining the K Street crowd. By exiting now, Lott could begin a lobbying career before the two-year waiting period becomes law. As a lobbyist, Lott could easily earn a seven-figure annual income.
Others believe that Mr. Lott had grown tired of politics in the internet age. He was routinely roasted in the blogosphere for his fondness for pork, and his go-along/get-along approach. Senator Lott was, for many, a symbol of the "out-of-touch" Republicans who lost power in 2006, and show no sign of regaining majority status anytime soon. Faced with that reality--and the understanding that he would never again be Majority Leader, even in a Republican-controlled Senate--Mr. Lott apparently believes now is the right time to end his political career.
But Lott's exit may be rooted in matters closer to home--and his heart. The Biloxi Sun-Herald is reporting that the Senator may be headed for an academic posting. As readers of this blog know, I'm a part-time Mississippi resident, and I've heard the same rumors this morning, in various state GOP circles. Michelle Malkin claims that story doesn't smell right, but obviously, she hasn't spent a lot of time in the Magnolia State. With his retirement from the Senate, Lott becomes the leading candidate to be the next Chancellor of the University of Mississippi.
Fact is, Senator Lott's beloved alma mater is quietly looking for a new leader. The current chancellor, Dr. Robert Khayat, is building his retirement home near the Oxford campus, and is expected to leave that post in the near future. While Khayat's retirement date has not been set, there are indications that his departure may occur sooner rather than later, the result of an apparent rift between the chancellor and influential alumni.
Evidence of that dispute was noted again over the weekend, during the sudden firing of Ole Miss's head football coach, Ed Orgeron. Less than a month ago, Khayat had given Orgeron a ringing endorsement, despite a losing record and disciplinary issues within the program. Khayat suggested that, "unless Orgeron broke the law" he would return for another season as the Rebels' head coach. But after going winless in the Southeastern Conference--and his team's shocking collapse in Friday's season finale against arch-rival Mississippi State--Orgeron was given the boot, by none other than Robert Khayat.
Sources in Oxford indicate that the Chancellor got his marching orders from a group of prominent Ole Miss alumni, led by Dickie Scruggs, the multi-millionaire tobacco lawyer who just happens to be Trent Lott's brother-in-law. Khayat's sudden reversal on Orgeron suggested that he was at odds--or out-of-touch--with the university's most powerful graduates, who had been clamoring for the coach's dismissal since mid-season.
While Dr. Khayat is given credit for expanding the Ole Miss campus and its endowment, he has been criticized for presiding over a "brain drain" at the university, and his creation of new academic programs at the expense of existing ones. Over the past 10 years, a number of leading faculty members have left Ole Miss for higher-paying jobs at other institutions, and Khayat has steadily refused to match their salary offers. Dr. Khayat has also led efforts to create an Honors College and a new international studies institute while long-standing academic programs have languished. Despite the building boom in Oxford, Ole Miss still doesn't have a single academic program this is ranked among the nation's elite.
There is also a sense that the university might be better served with a leader that has Washington connections. In recent years, there has been a veritable parade of ex-Congressmen and cabinet officials who have found employment as university presidents, including the Clinton Administration's Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala (now President at the University of Miami); former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers (who had a rocky tenure as Harvard's President); Secretary of Defense Robert Gates (who ran Texas A&M for a decade before joining the Bush Administration) and former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerry, President of The New School in New York City.
From the institutional perspective, a former Senator or cabinet secretary can be helpful in bringing home federal research dollars; as one of undisputed "Kings of Pork" on Capitol Hill, Mr. Lott could be a veritable gold mine for Ole Miss, using his influence to gain even more research grants for its medical, pharmacy and engineering schools, among others.
As the next Chancellor of the University of Mississippi, Lott could command a salary well above the $429,000 paid to Dr. Khayat. At $500-600,000 a year, Mr. Lott would earn far more that a sitting member of Congress, on top of a Senate pension of roughly $120,000 a year. It may not match the pay package of a Washington lobbyist, but $700,000 a year goes a long, long way in Oxford, Mississippi. And, with brother-in-law Dickie pulling the strings (not to mention the senator's own, considerable influence within the university), Mr. Lott is an early favorite to be the next Chancellor at Ole Miss.
And that may be the real reason for his sudden retirement from the Senate.