Meet the New Al Gore 

When even David Brooks, the neo-conservative columnist, is selling you down the river—calling you an inauthentic actor, a mere shell of your former political being, someone who has been "gradually altered" to the point of peddling "abstract" beliefs—you know you have a real problem. Especially if you are a fellow conservative. More especially if you are the Republican majority leader of the U.S. Senate. And even more still if you are Bill Frist, whose rising star is starting to look more like a falling meteor.

Such was Brooks' essential position in his Sunday New York Times piece, which was the political, prosaic and very public version of a breakup. Or, at the very least, it was a written recitation of the "I don't even know who you are anymore" speech.

"...For his first years in the Senate, Frist seemed to fit the mold of the Tennessee Republican, the mold of Howard Baker and Lamar Alexander—conservative but pragmatic, energetic but not confrontational," Brooks wrote. "But the Senate changes people. Senators are endlessly polished and briefed; they spend their days relentlessly speechifying. The White House beckons, and some come to seem less like human beings and more like nation-states. Opinions turn into positions. Beliefs grow more abstract. Individual traits become parts of the brand."

We wondered when the rest of the world would take notice of Frist's metamorphosis, which has a lot in common with the way Al Gore gradually turned away from the sensibilities of his state and, ultimately, became someone no one recognized, an ideologue who was difficult to define. And now that a widely respected columnist with a neo-con pedigree has blurted out about Frist what the rest of us have been thinking for a while, it really must be true.

While it's only now becoming transparently clear, Frist has been careening downhill for months now, looking foolish over everything from his refusal—on TV, no less—to say that HIV cannot be spread through tears and sweat, to his getting a flu shot that should have been reserved for the aging and ill, to his threatened "nuclear" option that was ultimately averted only because some more reasonable members of his party found middle ground, and, finally, to the Terri Schiavo fiasco. (Atlanta Journal-Constitution cartoonist Mike Luckovich's devastating rendering of Frist diagnosing King Tut as "the picture of health" while a man who overhears it whispers in explanation to his wife, "Senator Frist," was brilliant political commentary—and just another example of the national piling-on of which Frist is the target.)

There were promising indications that Frist could be a distinguished leader, and he's distinguished himself alright. Kind of like the way Donald Rumsfeld has distinguished himself on Guantanamo Bay, or how Howard Dean has distinguished himself on generating consensus among Democrats, or the way Britney Spears has distinguished herself for creating meaningful music. That is to say, badly.

He has insisted on partisanship even when it didn't behoove him. He has been doctrinaire when all that people wanted was an impartial, professional opinion from a man with a medical degree. He has aligned himself with a virtual right-wing counterculture (the Jumbotron Christians led by the likes of James Dobson and Tony Perkins) that most people of faith barely recognize, much less identify with. And he seems to place a higher value on his ambition than on common sense.

"Sometimes in their quests to perform greater acts of service, people lose contact with their animating passion," Brooks wrote Sunday. "And the irony is that the earlier Frist, the Tennessee Republican, the brilliant and passionate health care expert, is exactly the person the country could use."

The upside is that there's always Tennessee's other senator, Lamar Alexander, who, fortunately, hasn't distinguished himself badly. Of course, in his latest political incarnation, he's yet to really distinguish himself at all, but, given the alternative, we'll take it.

—Liz Garrigan


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