WASHINGTON -- The relief felt by Republican senators on Dec. 23 at concluding the two-week-long Trent Lott nightmare immediately turned to quiet apprehension when they heard Sen. Bill Frist's impromptu acceptance speech as the new Senate Republican leader. Had they, some wondered, picked an admirable man for the wrong job?
Frist, moments after his election in an unprecedented telephone caucus, compared the prospect of becoming Senate majority leader with his past exploits as a heart transplant surgeon. "I had to hold in my hands the human heart," he said, "recognizing all its glory and all its potential, and then technically seating it into the chest of a dying woman to give her life and a future she would not otherwise have." Dr. Frist then suggested he was now embarking on an even "heavier" responsibility, implying that the Grand Old Party needs radical surgery.
Actually, Senate Republicans were basking in the glow of regaining majority status on Nov. 5 until Sen. Lott's flattery of Strom Thurmond at his 100th birthday party triggered a massive political overreaction. Frist's exaggeration of Republican malaise suggests a steep learning curve for him as a new party leader. Apart from mastering the backbreaking details of running the Senate, Frist may have to be disabused of the notion that he is taking on responsibilities of moral leadership.
None of the eight previous majority leaders I observed during nearly half a century of reporting on the Senate took the job with less experience. Frist voted for the first time at age 36, entered politics at 42 to run for the Senate and now is majority leader at 50. Frist was ready to fulfill his two-term pledge and leave the Senate after four more years. Lyndon B. Johnson was only a 44-year-old first-term senator when he became Democratic leader, but he had spent his adult life in politics -- much of it on Capitol Hill.
Frist was technically a member of the leadership the past two years as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, but never has been involved in the grimy business of legislative management. While a brilliant heart surgeon quickly can learn how the Senate works, the question is whether he understands that this job calls for a dealmaker and tactician rather than a philosopher king.
It is a hard job, seldom blessed with success. The two most masterful majority leaders of my time -- LBJ and George Mitchell -- were Democrats who outwitted Republican presidents. Being the leader when the president is a member of the same party is less enjoyable and more difficult. Sen. Robert Byrd told me some 25 years ago that he was the Senate Democrats' majority leader -- not the unfortunate President Jimmy Carter's.
In contrast, Frist is all too close to George W. Bush, in the opinion of some colleagues. In managing the 2002 Senate GOP campaigns, he functioned as a virtual member of the White House staff. What really bothers senators, however, are signs that Frist does not fully realize that the Senate, for all its purported club-like camaraderie, always has been a cold and brutish place -- never more than it is today.
Frist's acceptance speech dwelled on Senate unity across party lines. In fact, he will face unremitting Democratic intransigence on tort reform, judicial nominees, abortion limitations, the faith-based initiative, anti-cloning legislation and President Bush's priority of tax reduction. On Dec. 23, Frist did not mention taxes.
Instead, he delivered a pronouncement on health care that, with hardly any editing, could have been echoed by Senate Democratic Leader Thomas Daschle: "We will improve and strengthen Medicare, address prescription drugs for our seniors and individuals with disabilities, and focus on the uninsured and the obvious health care disparities I've witnessed firsthand." Those are clearly Democratic issues where Republicans have to play defense.
Frist then followed with this description, which fits his medical heart-in-the-hand analogy: "We must dedicate ourselves to healing the wounds of division that have been reopened the past weeks." All too soon, Dr. Bill Frist will find that the skills of a healer may be to no avail in trying to make the Senate work.