Lott Flip-Flops, Scolds Clinton

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WASHINGTON: In the life of every politician there comes a moment when you just have to stop, smile and totally reverse course. Such was the case for Trent Lott Monday, who backed off his weekend criticism of Kenneth Starr to tell reporters that the independent counsel "is doing a great job under very difficult circumstances." Lott's weekend call for Starr to accelerate the long-running Whitewater investigation brought a quick "What were you thinking?" conversation with Newt Gingrich -- and today's charge that the President is stonewalling and trying to smear Starr's reputation. Later, Arlen Specter and Fred Thompson hit the Sunday talk shows to say that Starr should be given all the time he needed.

So what was Lott thinking? A careful reading of Clinton's still-stellar polls has the majority leader trying to get out in front of public sentiment, says TIME's Jef McAllister. "The public is sick and tired of the whole Lewinsky thing, and this helps Trent Lott distinguish himself from the other Republicans."

On the other hand, you don't want distinguish yourself too much, especially when the other members of the party are eager to keep a low profile in the case. "Republicans do not want to conduct impeachment proceedings unless they are absolutely sure," says McAllister. "The message this is sending to Ken Starr is that you better come up with some really good stuff before you turn this over to the House."