In a forthcoming issue of Reason, I review Trent Lott's memoir, Herding Cats. The review focuses on Lott's reluctance to discuss racial issues. Here I want to talk about the book's value to those who study Congress. Even his sharpest critics concede that Lott is a smart legislative mechanic, so this book might have been great source material for studies of congressional operations. Instead it is full of sloppy factual errors. Here are some examples from just one chapter:
- In discussing his 1980 election as House GOP whip, Lott refers to "the Conservative Opportunity Society, formed by Newt Gingrich a few years earlier." Gingrich won his first congressional race in 1978 and the Conservative Opportunity Society started in 1983.
- Lott says that his initial whip team included Tom DeLay (R-TX) and Jon Kyl (R-AZ). DeLay was in the class of 1984, and Kyl came two years later.
- During his years as whip, he says, "my party's high-water mark was 196 Republican votes in the House of Representatives." No, the figure was 192.
- Lott speaks of a party rift that "surfaced in early 1985 when the president proposed a budget that included major tax increases in the guise of tax reform." He says that backing it was "the biggest legislative mistake of my years as whip." He is confusing the 1985-86 tax reform bill with the Tax Equity and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed in 1982. Lott did back TEFRA in 1982, but he opposed the House version of the tax reform bill, and even engineered the defeat of the floor rule. The latter story is a classic tale of procedural maneuvering, but alas, Lott's book skips it.
- He regrets supporting "Reagan's proposal to create a separate Department of Education." It was Carter's proposal, which became law in 1979. He recalls "Congressman Dan Quayle" giving him a hard time about it, which means that his memory dates from the Carter years, since Quayle won his Senate seat in 1980. This mistake is especially strange since President Reagan originally wanted to abolish the Department.
- He discusses the 1984 incident between Newt Gingrich and Tip O'Neill in which the chair ruled O'Neill out of order. He recalls that "Joe Mobley of Massachusetts" was presiding. Joe Moakley was a high-ranking member of the Rules Committee, with whom Lott had to deal frequently. He also says that Kyl (who was still a Phoenix lawyer) took part in the floor speeches that had annoyed O'Neill.
These goofs are just those that I found on first reading: there are probably more. My guess is that he hastily dictated notes to a ghostwriter, and did not bother to check the final product. Too bad. I would love to assign my students a first-person account of congressional life that thoughtful, candid, and accurate. As Nelson Polsby explains in an appendix to How Congress Evolves, it is hard to think of one.