- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 7, 2003

When Sen. Bill Frist sprang into action minutes after a rollover SUV accident on a Florida highway until paramedics arrived, he made the sort of heroic headlines everyone likes to see, especially his fellow Republicans.
He also symbolized the ways in which President Bush and his fellow Republicans, having survived the storm kicked up by Trent Lott, may have come out politically ahead in the long run.
"As a doctor, my first instincts are to help," he said after the New Year's Day accident. Two died, including a 10-year-old girl. But paramedics praised Mr. Frist's help in saving the other four victims after the accident interrupted his vacation trip.
Emergency rescue is not a new role for Mr. Frist, a surgeon from Tennessee. When a gunman opened fire in the U.S. Capitol in 1998, Mr. Frist rushed into aid of at least two victims. In 1995, he revived a 60-year-old man who collapsed inside a Senate office building.
So it is easy to believe that politics were not on his mind at the time. But for those of us who can't stop thinking about politics, the episode was symbolic of the hopes that Mr. Bush and other Republicans have for Mr. Frist, as he replaces Mr. Lott of Mississippi as the Senate's incoming majority leader.
He is known to be an expert at repairing people. Now, we wonder, can he repair the damage his predecessor as incoming Senate majority leader has done to the image of Mr. Bush, his party and his agenda?
Senate Republicans selected Mr. Frist to replace the problematic Mr. Lott, who had to go after dropping his famous rhetorical stink bomb at Strom Thurmond's 100th birthday party.
Lighthearted Mr. Lott sounded like he was endorsing Mr. Thurmond's segregationist presidential bid in 1948, a position Mr. Thurmond himself long ago discarded.
Then Mr. Lott dug himself deeper into a hole with his desperation appearance on BET (Black Entertainment Television), where he suddenly supported affirmative action, a holiday to honor the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and numerous other issues he steadfastly has voted against.
"My actions," he said with a straight fact, "do not reflect my voting record."
Say what?
By then the issue become not only racial tolerance but Mr. Lott's competence and his party's credibility. He had to go.
And up steps Frist. Hollywood could hardly have cast a more warm, engaging and heroic figure to heal the wounds, as he promised he would try to do.
"Dr. Frist," as his allies like to call him on Capitol Hill, emphasizing his stature, intelligence and winning charm, has a reputation for moderate politics that, on some hot-button issues like gun control and abortion, have offended some right-wingers as not being conservative enough. He notably has volunteered for missionary work in Africa. He embodies the image of "compassionate conservatism" that Mr. Bush has tried to project.
Yes, there have been charges that, earlier in his career, Mr. Frist also used racial code words.
At least three times in his 1994 Senate race against Democratic incumbent Jim Sasser, in Tennessee, Mr. Frist said in various forms, "While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry."
Oh? One might wonder what Mr. Barry, who happens to be black and who FBI cameras happened to catch smoking crack but who did not happen to be mayor of the District of Columbia during Mr. Frist's campaign, had to do with Tennessee's Senate race.
Nevertheless, Democrats probably don't want to make a big deal out of that particular coded episode, unless they want to remind America of Mr. Barry's brand of leadership. Frankly, I doubt they do.
That leaves his fellow Republicans to voice the biggest complaints about Mr. Frist so far. Some of his fellow senators wonder whether he is tough enough, conservative enough or experienced enough as a leader.
That should make this upcoming session an interesting one to watch. Now that Republicans have gained control of the Senate again, they have to fight to keep it, if they can avoid fighting too much among themselves.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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