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FRIST COMES TO LISTEN -- AND TO SHOW AND TELL

Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, looking into a year, 2006, in which he intends to vacate his Senate seat and, as everybody understands, seek the presidency of the United States, came to Memphis on Tuesday as the last stage of what he has been calling a statewide “listening tour.”

No doubt he is interested in hearing what’s on his constituents’ minds. He is also interested in telling them what’s on his mind. And, as he addressed the downtown Memphis Rotary Club at the Convention Center on Tuesday, he saw to both purposes.

He told the members frankly that he’d used his influence to get a variety of projects funded that were of interest to Memphis. He told them that he had three main concerns that he intended to deal with in what was left of his second Senate term: (1) China, and the trade and job issues associated with that long-term colossus; (2) the cost of health care; and (3) the War on Terror.

Frist, a renowned transplant surgeon before his election and a physician who still plies his trade in pro bono missions to the Third World, also took a poll of his audience on the question of embryonic stem cell research. How many people thought the government should keep hands off and not contribute additional funding to such research? he asked. And he got a sprinkling of hands. How many thought that the government should indeed get behind embryonic stem cell research with accelerated funding?

This latter was precisely the course he had recently recommended, of course – to the dismay of the social conservatives whose support he had been courting for most of the previous year, and to the satisfaction of his medical peers and, if the polls are to be trusted, to the majority of his fellow citizens. Certainly an overwhelming majority of the Rotarians present on Tuesday supported Frist’s statement of support – which represented a direct break with the Bush administration, whose main man he is in the Senate. It was clear that Frist took satisfaction in the outcome of his impromptu poll – one which, it is said, he has taken at every stop on the Tennessee tour, and with the same net result.

After the speech, Frist was asked about two other issues. What about the new book Herding Cats by former Majority Leader Trent Lott, whose job he inherited through what Lott, in the book, calls a “betrayal”? The Mississippian alleges that Frist had undermined him to get the job after the flap over Lott’s ill- birthday praise in late 2002 of now deceased centenarian Strom Thurmond’s segregationst past.

(Lest it be thought that the ambitious Frist was propelled only by the immediacy of that scandal, he had told the Flyer as far back as 1998 that “a lot of us are not really satisfied with how things are going” on Lott’s watch. The Tennesse senator said then that if and when “20 or so” Republican senators were prepared to support him, he might launch his own leadership bid.)

Frist: "I’ve not read the comments, I’ve not read the book. I have tremendous respect for Trent Lott. I’ve worked with him very closely. I have lunch with him two days a week. He helped me on the energy bill. He helped move America forward on the highway bill, on the recent CAFTA bill. I look forward to working with him constructively. And that’s pretty much where it sits. I know that it was very difficult in the past when he, uh, sat down, and I respect his interpretation of the events that led to that. I’m really looking to the future and to my continued close work with a man who I respect remendously, Trent Lott, who’s served the people of Mississippi in a very positive and constructive way."

And what about the resolution of the filibuster battle some months back, which was ended in a compromise solution proposed by his likely presidential rival, Senator John McCain? Did he regard this alternative as a defeat for his own hard-line position

Frist: "You know, being the elected majority leader of the United States Senate means you do certain things, and I have led on principle. I have led on the basis that I say I’m going to do something, and then I go ahead and do it. I feel strongly on behalf of that principle that nominees deserve and up or down vote. It is our responsibility to treat these nominees with respect, all these nominees, and with advice and consent, and in doing that, I stood on principle to give them an up or down vote. Other people felt that not all candidates deserve an up or down vote, and I, you know, respect that, but I don’t agree with it. In terms of was I successful or not, in standing on principle, six nominees who were filibustered in the last Congress by the other side of the aisle, who thought that they had no chance in the future, because of my standing on principle are now sitting federal judges serving the American people."

‘Put that foolishness to rest’:

The name of A C Wharton keeps turning up on this or that political blogster’s Web site in connection with a possible race for the presumably soon-to-be-vacant 9th District congressional seat of Rep. Harold Ford Jr..

Forget about it. Asked about it this week, the Shelby County mayor made about as clear-cut and definitive rejection of the idea as it is possible for a politician to make in this day and age.

“Let me be as clear and unequivocal as possible,” Wharton said. “I have not had any intention, do not have any intention, plans, whatever, to run for Congress.”

Even the place itself had no charm for Wharton. “I’ve been there and done that,” he said. “I was a trial lawyer with the EOC [Economic Opportunity Commission], and I worked with another firm there. I get in there once in a while to testify and do some business. No, I have no interest.”

No interest, no plans, no intention: Out of the mouths of other politicians, anyhow, these can be political wiggle words. Would the mayor eliminate all doubt by making his renunciation of a congressional race absolute and categorical? “Yes,” he answered firmly, maintaining that he had owned only two objectives politically. “One I accomplished when I won in 2002. And I want to run again. That’s it.”

Wharton continued to nail the door shut. “We already have an excellent congressman, and whether he runs [for the U.S. Senate] or not, and I’m confident he will, I have absolutely no interest in that job. And look, I’m 61 years old. I just started this career. It’s rough enough to have to run every four years. The way Congress is, I’d be lucky to say at about age 85 [here Wharton assumed a creaky, codger’s voice], ‘By George, I finally got something passed.’”

The county mayor went on to note the post-9/11 searches and restrictions on one’s movements on Capitol Hill and to contrast that with the freer and easier atmosphere of 30 years ago when he first experienced Washington as a visitor. “I have a better job here,” he concluded. A final comment concerning the speculation about his running for Congress: “I wish you’d do me a favor and put that foolishness to rest.”

Deed done. Read it and weep, bloggers.

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