The Dec. 21 New York Times featured a get-to-know-the-new-guy profile of Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, the new Senate Majority Leader. The Times informed readers that Frist "has been criticized for comments that were seen as racially insensitive."
But if you're thinking, uh-oh, another southern senator with a foot-in-mouth problem over racial issues, hold on.
First, consider the evidence in the case of the Forces of Truth and Light vs. Frist and the Evil GOP.
In 1994, Bill Frist, a leading heart and lung transplant surgeon, ran against Democratic Tennessee Sen. Jim Sasser. "On at least three occasions," the Times ominously notes, Frist used the line, "While I've been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans' wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry."
The Times suggests this is "racially insensitive," as did a desperate Sasser at the time. Josh Marshall, author of the TalkingPointsMemo.com, a popular site among liberal journalists and Democratic operatives in desperate need off ideological ammo, has been peddling the idea that this reference to Barry typifies the Republican addiction to race-baiting politics, because Barry had "nothing" to do with a senatorial contest in Tennessee.
"I doubt Frist is a racist," Marshall charitably concedes. "But this almost makes the point more clearly. Even some of best Southern Republicans seem incapable of resisting the temptation to dabble in racial code words and appeals on the stump."
Alas, as Mickey Kaus of Slate magazine noted, Barry wasn't irrelevant to the Tennessee contest. Sasser was the chairman of the Senate subcommittee in charge of the District of Columbia. And, in the early 1990s, the district was a financial basket case run by a federally appointed control board that spent vast amounts of taxpayer dollars -including Tennessee dollars -fixing D.C.'s budgetary train wreck. Oh yeah, Democratic Mayor Barry was also a crack-smoking embarrassment all around the world.
The assumption here is that if the mayor of D.C. had been, say, a member of the lily-white but ultraliberal Kennedy family, Frist would never have used the line. And that is absurd. Or, at least, the burden should be on the people charging racism not on the accused.
And then there are those pencils. The Frist campaign ordered some pencils with his name imprinted on them. Candidate Frist wanted to hand some out at an anti-crime rally in a predominantly black neighborhood. He told a staffer he preferred unsharpened pencils because "I don't want to get stuck."
He didn't want to get stuck! In a black neighborhood! With sharpened pencils! Dear Lord, it's "Birth of a Nation" all over again. I mean, this is the sort of rhetoric we've come to expect from David Duke!
At the time, Democratic Tennessee congressman Harold Ford Jr. demanded that Frist apologize for the "racially insensitive" comment and the story was pushed by some overeager local reporters.
As Bill Hobbs, a veteran Tennessee reporter remarked recently on his Web site (www.hobbsonline.blogspot.com), "It was absurd then -a lie propagated by two newspapers that had already endorsed Frist's opponent, the incumbent Sen. Jim Sasser -and most everyone in the newsroom at The Tennessean, where I worked at the time, knew it and was embarrassed by the story. It is even more absurd now for the NYT to recycle it in an attempt to undercut Frist as he ascends to the post of Senate Majority Leader."
You may be wondering what, in fact, is racist about not wanting to get stuck with sharpened pencils. Apparently, the insinuation is that Frist was afraid he'd get stabbed by black people if they were given access to pointy implements with a white Republican around. But considering how many times he's operated on black people -in America and Africa -that seems unlikely. After all, scalpels are pointy, too.
So what's the lesson here? Well, it's certainly not that Bill Frist is racially insensitive, it's that his opponents are racially hypersensitive. It's no secret after the Lott affair that conservatives and Republicans have issues to grapple on race. But what is a secret, at least to the Times, is that Democrats and liberals have issues as well.
Today, according to the leading lights of the Democratic Party -Bill and Hillary Clinton, Ted Kennedy, the Congressional Black Caucus, etc. -the only principled position on race is the Democratic position. Worse, anything Republicans say must be racist, or at least susceptible to racial demagoguery, which is why Democrats began a whisper campaign against Frist the moment his name came up as a replacement for Lott. Not only is that unfair, it's a surefire way to make an "honest discussion" on race impossible.