Bill Frist's new face

After months spent sucking up to the religious right, the Senate majority leader tries looking presidential instead.

By Tim Grieve
Published June 2, 2005 1:50PM (EDT)

Bill Frist can't be happy with how his presidential prospects have played out over the last few months. While John McCain has been lapping up the glory -- short-lived though it may be -- of leading the way to a nuclear option-averting compromise and basking in the gauzy hero treatment of an A&E movie on his life, Frist has been bumbling as he's tried to suck up in succession to the religious right and the NASCAR dads.

First Frist led the fight to "save" Terri Schiavo, going so far as purporting to diagnose her condition on the floor of the U.S. Senate based on a few snippets of videotape he'd seen. The public wasn't pleased. Then he led the fight against the filibuster, only to watch McCain and other moderates in his party pull the rug right out from under him with a deal that he didn't know was coming. Now he's stuck on the right side of the religious right but the wrong side of the public on stem cell research, and his stumbles at the Coca-Cola 600 this weekend suggest that he might not have a Bushian touch when it comes to masking his hard right agenda with the friendly face of the common man.

Is Frist beginning to see that he needs to try something new? Maybe. In Boston yesterday, Frist trotted out a kinder and gentler version of himself, introducing the sort of "if we can put a man on the moon, why can't we. . . " plan that seems designed to announce, "I'm a broad-minded visionary and a presidential candidate, too!" In a lecture at Harvard Medical School, Frist proposed what he called "an unprecedented effort -- a Manhattan Project for the 21st century -- not with the goal of creating a destructive new weapon, but to defend against destruction wreaked by infectious disease and biological weapons."

Cost? Unknown? Timetable? Unclear. How it fits in with his usual agenda of ramming through judges and carrying water for friends on the religious right who are suddenly so disappointed in him? Frist didn't say. "I've got to build a case for it," Frist said. For it, and -- after the last few months -- for himself, too.

Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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