The New Heroes 

The anthrax fear creates new idols, and David Satcher should be one of them

The anthrax fear creates new idols, and David Satcher should be one of them

After the attack on the World Trade Center, there has been a wide outpouring of admiration for police and firefighters who rushed to the scene. Many paid for their fidelity to duty with their lives, and the admiration is greatly deserved. The politicians, meanwhile, saw public displays of admiration as good for their business.

But as the campaign against terrorism goes on, there isn’t much noise from the politicians about the heroes on the front lines in the second domestic battleground. That campaign, obviously, is the assault of mail-borne anthrax, and the heroes are the postal workers expected to quietly do their jobs quietly in an environment of pervasive fear. The heroism we expect from them is simply living every day, and that’s much less photogenic. Moreover, officials may feel constrained from making too much of it for fear of creating more apprehension. But all of us should acknowledge what it takes.

Meanwhile, the anthrax situation itself and the administration’s unsure response to it have done little to reassure an uneasy public. Particularly lacking is a credible leader on the subject. Tommy Thompson, the health and human services secretary, came to Washington based on his reputation as a welfare reform progressive. He doesn’t have a strong public health background and has stumbled on some public issues. The administration has shifted the leadership role to Tom Ridge, the former Pennsylvania governor and director of homeland security. He’s not a health guy either.

The person the administration should be using more is the surgeon general, David Satcher. Nashvillians who remember him for his decade of leadership at Meharry Medical College know him as a cool, reassuring presence with a sure touch on public issues. After leaving Meharry in 1993, Satcher became head of the Centers for Disease Control before taking over as surgeon general in 1998. But the administration doesn’t seem eager to parade him as a point man. Presumably, that’s because he is a Clinton appointee with liberal views on some sex-related issues, and the Bush administration probably has earmarked him for replacement on a sooner rather than later schedule.

They might do well to rethink that. —P.A.

New life for the GOP?

Tennessee’s surgeon turned senator appears more than willing to lead his party at the national level, but the question remains whether Bill Frist will accept the mantle here at home.

The titular head status bestowed on leaders within Tennessee’s two main political parties is usually a smoke-and-mirrors game that party operatives use to extend their own relevance. Claiming unwritten authorization from these leaders empowers the small men and women who live and die on the inside machinations of political parties to grant favors and ladle out daggers in the slow-witted soap operas that often engulf the “party building” process.

Frist seemingly is poised to be the titular head of the Tennessee Republican Party through the usual process by which title is won—by default. While Sen. Fred Thompson is clearly the state’s most popular politician, his rock star status and bachelor work ethic do not suit the post. Gov. Don Sundquist already is enduring lame duck status, abandoned and vilified by the state GOP for his role as the front man for a levy on personal income.

That leaves Frist alone—being broadcast to Tennesseans every day on national political talk shows as he offers his thoughts on anthrax and his political benefactors in the Bush administration.

One Bush-generated post for Frist already has paid off for the state GOP. As chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), Frist probably can be credited for helping to lure Thompson back to the reelection fold. Frist also has brought a couple of potential Tennessee conduits with him to the NRSC—his former campaign finance director Linus Catignani and former state party chairman Chip Saltsman.

Those close to Frist say he is being encouraged to take a more active role in state-level politics back home. “All the right people are suggesting it,” one Frist man says. —C.B.

Still glad-handing

Al Gore still has his beard.

He’s also still playing the low-key supporter of the president, but his Hamlet act with regard to his political future is starting to get a little threadbare. Last weekend, when he made his long-scheduled appearance before the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s main state fund-raising dinner, he surprised political insiders by showing up in the state six days in advance of the event—the sort of thing politicians usually fly in and fly out for on the same day if they can work it into their schedules.

Gore spent the week working the state, visiting with old supporters and veteran operatives. Although he would come into another presidential bid in 2004 as an obvious frontrunner, there are enough other ego cases out there—and disappointed supporters—that he can’t count on the preemptive status he held in 2000. Gore has always been the plodder of American politics whose approach to every problem has been to work harder. He may also want to give some thought to working smarter. —P.A.

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