January 1, 2003
Frist's Surgical Skills Needed in Senate
by Donald G. Mashburn

Sen. Trent Lott had an opportunity to do something worthwhile for his country, his nation and himself. And he did it -- finally. He resigned his position as Senate Majority Leader.

Lott's successor, Sen. Bill Frist, R- Tenn., is a surgeon, and his medical skills will be needed if Lott's condition proves contagious. That is, if the doctor is experienced in foot-from-mouth extraction.

Lott's ill-chosen remarks at a December 5 gathering honoring 100-year-old Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., raised a firestorm of protests. Lott showed amazingly poor judgment in "playing" to the elderly Thurmond, and speaking words that offended people across the political spectrum.

Lott, R-Miss., said he and Mississippians were proud of having supported Thurmond's 1948 run for president as a segregationist Dixiecrat. By now we all know the words that did Lott in: "And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either."

In the minds of many, Lott's words implied that he thought the segregationist Thurmond would have been a better president than Harry Truman, and that the "problems" referred to included the efforts to right the wrongs of segregation.

The story grew legs, and GOP critics everywhere jumped on it. Lott then should have had the grace and good sense to step aside. Instead, he hung on for days, doing an "apology tour" that only made things worse.

In his almost pathetic desire to retain his position, Lott continued to show a remarkable lack of perception. He would not go gently into that good night.

GOP senators knew from Lott's apologies, and sudden willingness to switch from previous "principled" positions, they had to have someone stronger -- with principles -- representing the Republican Senate agenda.

It became apparent that if Lott could so easily switch positions on important issues, his word or future positions would not carry much weight. Also, as long as Lott remained as GOP leader, he would be a lightning rod for criticism.

When the Lott fiasco reached critical mass, the message was clear: a change of Republican leadership in the Senate was necessary. Sen. Don Nickles, R-Okla., was the first to show the political courage to say Lott should be replaced.

Nickles' show of spine encouraged other GOP senators to speak out, and soon the bad news reached Lott. Finally showing some awareness of the situation, Lott stepped aside December 20.

Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., a surgeon, now in his second Senate term, will be the new majority leader. Frist is a good choice. He's intelligent, has good credentials, and handles himself well on his feet and before the television cameras. He's considered to be among the ten most conservative senators, although not as conservative as many would like.

Frist is close to President George W. Bush, and that should help both the president's program and the Republican agenda in the Senate. In particular, the President's judicial nominees should fare much better in the Senate.

Frist has the opportunity to be much more effective than Lott ever was. Lott was never a strong GOP leader in the Senate -- he helped sell out the House Managers in the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton, and caved on several budget issues.

Sen. Frist's surgical skills should come in handy in the Senate. Lott and other senators given to speaking without thinking can benefit from Frist's surgical know-how in getting help for their "foot-in-mouth" problems. In time, maybe Dr. Frist can perfect a technique to make sure a senator's mouth won't open before the brain is engaged.

Once the good doctor finishes that, he can turn his attention to backbone transplants for the senators that got all weak and wobbly during the impeachment of Bill Clinton.