Plenty of congressmen and senators are grumbling, but Bill Frist has at least two Republican friends loyal enough to the majority leader—even as he retires from the Senate after 12 years in office—to break from long-standing tradition. In July, two FOBs, Thad Cochran of Mississippi and Kit Bond of Missouri, authored legislation designating a new seven-story federal courthouse in Nashville to be named the “William H. Frist M.D. Federal Courthouse.”
The “M.D.” is a particularly craven twist, especially given that such naming honors are traditionally reserved for leaders who have expired not just from legislating, but from life itself. But lately Congress has given itself more leeway to honor its living, breathing members by naming courthouses, post offices and research buildings after themselves.
Critics say the practice is an undignified attempt at respect. “It’s political pandering,” says Steve Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, noting that the Nashville courthouse has been designed but Congress has yet to fund it. “Naming becomes more about status than about the project. The Nashville courthouse is still a gleam in someone’s eye, but it’s already named after Sen. Frist. The name becomes an ego stroke we’re spending money on.”
Ellis doesn’t like the idea of naming buildings after congressional members because he says once a project is named, it becomes much more difficult for opponents to kill it for legitimate reasons. He wonders, for example, what will happen to the stadium in D.C. named after Jack Kennedy’s little brother once it outlives its usefulness. “It’s going to be hard to tear down RFK stadium,” he says. (Cape Kennedy, incidentally, might also pose a problem for future renovators.)
Honoring a sitting congressman or senator is, naturally, a bipartisan effort. Some pundits jokingly refer to West Virginia as West Byrd-ginia because of all the buildings named after Robert Byrd, the Democrat who has represented the state for nearly 50 years.
But just because both sides of the aisle participate, doesn’t make the practice right. “It’s an odd way to ensure one’s own legacy,” says Steve Tuck, an associate professor of classics at Miami University of Ohio. Tuck has studied how buildings have been named since the time of the Romans, who wanted to honor the life’s work of their civic leaders by naming buildings after them. Applying the term “life’s work” to the Frist Courthouse is ironic not only because he’s still very much alive, but because Frist is a doctor, not a lawyer or judge—and will have only served 12 years in the Senate.
“This courthouse name really strikes me as bogus on a lot of levels,” Tuck says.
Tuck points to a day in history, Feb. 15, 44 B.C., when building names had a profound effect on an empire. That was the day Julius Caesar gathered with senators in a controversial meeting that arguably led to his demise. Already named dictator for life, Caesar’s likeness had appeared on coins and his name was written on the senate chambers, the speaker’s platform and the courthouse—all within view of the senators during the meeting. “Reasonable scholars pick that moment as the point when senators began to conspire against Caesar,” Tuck says. “They saw all those buildings with his name on them and thought they were no longer living in a Republic. They thought he was trying to be king.”
It’s probably too late to deep-six the Frist Courthouse—the name, not the building. The full Senate is expected to vote on funding for the courthouse as well as the Cochran-Bond amendment after Thanksgiving. Senators could flame the measure, but why would they want to? If Democrats win back a majority in the Senate in November, the GOP won’t have the votes after this fall to give Frist the honor (some) Republicans think he deserves. Their desire at the moment is more “it’s now or never” than “Long Live Frist!”
The Fabricator strikes again A Beltway insider newsletter, The Frontrunner, is re-reporting as fact GOP gubernatorial candidate Jim Bryson’s faux hiring of actor Verne Troyer (The Fabricator, Sept. 28). Whether this is good or bad for Bryson’s lost cause is anyone’s guess. Here’s how the newsletter put it: “The Nashville Scene (9/28) reports that ‘Verne Troyer, the small actor best known for playing Mini-Me in the Austin Powers movies, has been hired’ by the Jim Bryson (R) campaign to portray Phil Bredesen (D) ‘in a series of mock debates to be held around the state.’ The Scene states that ‘Bryson’s hiring of the diminutive Troyer comes on the heels of a controversial television ad in which a towering Bryson holds a pipsqueak Bredesen look-alike in the palm of his hand to make some vital issue-oriented point about the gubernatorial election.’ ”
Again, we reiterate, it’s called The Fabricator.
The Corker/Ford dance When a director plans when and where an actor is supposed to stand on stage to recite his or her lines, it’s called “blocking.” Unfortunately, there’s no such equivalent at political events.
The well-meaning people at The Nashville City Club learned this the hard way last week when they hosted a candidate forum for Bob Corker and Harold Ford Jr., who are vying to fill Bill Frist’s open Senate seat. The agenda was pretty straightforward. Both candidates were to speak and then take questions from the crowd. They weren’t to debate or interact with each other, but the audience could ask questions. There was a small dais with two chairs, a podium and a microphone.
Pretty straightforward, yes? No.
First, as is customary for the notoriously tardy Ford, he arrived about 30 minutes late. This time, it turned out not to be a problem because Corker was nowhere to be found either. So Ford grabbed a mic and began stumping. After his speech, perennial candidate John Jay Hooker interrogated him about out-of-state contributions.
Meanwhile, Corker showed up. For some reason, the former Chattanooga mayor chose not to take the stage. He instead was squirreled away in another room at the City Club, where he waited until Ford was done.
At some merciful point, Hooker stopped asking questions (and follow-up questions) and just started lecturing about the founding fathers and how they would be against out-of-state money in local politics. And of course, there were other folks who wanted to ask questions, so Ford kept talking.
Enter Joyce Marshall, the City Club’s membership director who, sadly for her, was tasked with “handling” the candidates. As Ford and Hooker droned on, and on, poor Marshall paced, pointing to her watch and making the “let’s wrap it up” sign to Ford whenever he looked her way.
Eventually he finished, which meant it was time for Corker. Except it seemed that Corker’s people were trying to avoid having their candidate cross paths with Ford. This further delayed things as Ford lingered in the hallway answering questions, greeting supporters and having his picture taken with seemingly everybody in the room.
Meanwhile, Marshall, a pretty and composed young woman, was still doing the watch-pointing thing and growing visibly irritated. Finally, Corker left his hiding spot and inadvertently walked directly into the path of Jr.
All that skulking around for nothing.
The meeting was anti-climactic: Ford looked surprised, Corker just smiled. They shook hands and parted ways. Marshall looked somewhat relieved as Corker headed toward the podium and into the rhetorical arms of John Jay Hooker.