- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

Liberals give majority leader a hard time

How many conversations have you been in when someone says, “I wish we could get high-quality people from different fields to run for elective office?” Well, we’ve got one — newly installed Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. And we can only hope that this thoroughly decent man will be allowed to lead. Tragically, history suggests that bullies have the best chance to get things done on Capitol Hill — that those who lead must be feared.

Than there’s Bill Frist, who is just the opposite. I met the newly elected Dr. Frist almost a decade ago, when he was appointed to the Senate Commerce Committee I chaired. Immediately, he impressed me as a moral, ethically brilliant and intellectual conservative. Here’s a heart surgeon who volunteers in war-torn Africa, a busy professional who’s involved in children’s lives and a scholar who wrote an authoritative volume on bioterrorism. Dr. Frist is a straight arrow with an almost naive goodness about him. His greatest strengths might well be weaknesses in the brutal politics of the Congress. Well-educated, he expresses himself in long, grammatically correct sentences. (Perhaps he could learn from Hubert Humphrey’s rousing speeches built in five or six-word phrases and punctuated with semicolons and dashes milking the audience for thunderous applause.

Sen. Frist does not need politics. As a wealthy heart transplant surgeon, he ran, won and was re-elected by an unprecedented margin in Tennessee. In January, this close friend and ally of President Bush was thrust into unexpected leadership in the Senate.

Three months later, I fear the start of a pattern, as Democrats and Republicans are starting to take advantage of Sen. Frist’s niceness. Call this power politics as usual — a concept well studied in Robert Caro’s new Pulitzer Prize-winning “Master of the Senate.” Mr. Caro devotes forty pages to Lyndon Johnson’s character assassination of Leland Olds, former chairman of the Federal Power Commission. When Olds — a Democrat and close friend of Johnson’s — offended Texas oilmen, Johnson, who counted on oil contributions, labeled Olds a Communist, destroyed his career and called it “just politics.”

Johnson, who seems to be admired as a classic Washington power broker, would totally destroy a friend who got in his way. Sen. Frist could not and would not ever do that.

Maybe that is why some senators on both sides of the aisle have been taking advantage of him. Mr. Frist, a genuinely nice guy, has not embraced the usual power politics. When faced with the prospect of no Senate budget approval, for example, Sen. Frist agreed to a compromise — and stirred up a hornet’s nest on the Republican side. Meanwhile, Democratic senators have treated Mr. Frist shamefully in their filibustering of the judicial nomination of Miguel Estrada. They asked for more information, so Mr. Frist offered additional hearings or more documents in exchange for an up-down vote. Still, the filibuster continues. (By the way, where have all the opponents of the filibuster suddenly disappeared?) If Mr. Frist was a Democratic senate leader, and the circumstances were reversed, the national press would be suffering apoplexy on his behalf.

Mr. Frist undeniably faces the kind of anti-Republican sentiment in the national media that treated Democratic Majority Leaders Tom Daschle and George Mitchell with kid gloves, but didn’t discover until he left office that Republican Bob Dole was a nice guy. Mr. Frist is an intellectual conservative — he can answer point- by-point liberal shibboleths. The national media is more comfortable with a Jesse Helms expressing conservatism — and they will be tougher on Sen. Frist as time passes just for that reason.

Perhaps what Sen. Frist needs most is a Karl Rove — a knowledgeable, thrust?and jab administrative assistant to play hard-edged politics. Other nice guys in top Senate posts such as Mike Mansfield and Howard Baker surrounded themselves with “white lightening” politicos to take care of arm-twisting and retaliation.

Maybe we could send Mr. Frist a speechwriter like Ted Sorenson, who carefully and numerically cadenced President Kennedy’s speeches: two short sentences. One long. And always an eye on the applause line. (Mr. Frist would probably not accept this.)

Can Mr. Frist, who’s cut from such decent cloth, survive in politics? Only if senators of both parties reward him with some followership. It seems that all senators desire to be recognized as a leader by the folks back home. But our system also requires some who support and accept good leadership. And the voting public must recognize this.

Even more, Mr. Frist needs a break from members of the media including some who “got ahead” on the same type of destructiveness of others that seems to prevail inside the beltway.

Americans, who say they want decent, well-informed, even-tempered leaders, should embrace Mr. Frist’s unusual goodness and decency — and demand an end to the grudge-holding, mean-spirited, anti-intellectual atmosphere that pervades Washington.

It’s time for all sides to give Mr. Frist a break and let him establish his leadership.

Larry Pressler is a former Republican senator from South Dakota.

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