By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 8, 2006
As man-hugs go, this one was definitely uncomfortable to watch.
Apparently taking the Democrats' pledge of civility seriously, Sen. Harry M. Reid of Nevada bearhugged a startled Sen. Bill Frist yesterday, as Frist, the outgoing majority leader, bid farewell to his colleagues on the Senate floor. As the two men firmly shook hands, the Democrat unexpectedly reeled Frist in closer. After an awkward two-step, Frist even hugged back a little.
The fuzzy moment starkly contrasted with Democratic Senate leader Thomas A. Daschle's farewell two years ago -- when few Republicans even showed up. Frist's goodbye was positively warm and was attended by about 25 Democrats. Even liberal Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) showered praise on the GOP leader. And all gave him a long standing ovation.
Frist, retiring from the Senate after limiting himself to two terms, delivered a final address to a hushed gallery, urging his colleagues of 12 years to work together and warning against "destructive partisanship."
"We are moving toward a body with a two-year vision," the Tennessee Republican said, "governing for the next election -- rather than a body with a 20-year vision. . . . I urge that we also consider what our work in this chamber is really all about. Is it about keeping the majority? Is it about red states versus blue states? Is it about lobbing attacks across the aisle? Is it about war rooms whose purpose is not to contrast ideas but to destroy? Or is it more?"
Frist, a physician, has ended his political career for now, announcing last week that he will not run for president as he had planned and instead will return to his home state. He had a meteoric rise as a "citizen legislator," as he called himself, who jumped into the business of politics after a career in medicine. He was elected majority leader after Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) was forced out over racially insensitive remarks.
But a string of missteps and defeats, not the least of which was the GOP loss of the Senate, left Frist with a mixed legacy as he contemplated the White House. That he was perceived to have carried water for an increasingly unpopular president did not help.
He was ridiculed for declaring that Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman whose medical case began a national spectacle, had not suffered irreversible brain damage, though he had not examined her -- and he is a heart surgeon. As a national debate raged, Frist said he was basing his diagnosis on a videotape he had viewed of the brain-damaged woman.
Later, Frist alienated the conservatives he would need to launch a presidential bid when he said he would support expanding federal funding of embryonic stem cell research, contrary to the Bush administration's position.
Yesterday, Frist was escorted into the chamber by Vice President Cheney, Senate Minority Leader-elect Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and outgoing House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.). Frist's wife and their three sons watched from the gallery.
Reid said that he and Frist are friends, despite partisan differences.
"Over the years, we have had our ups and downs," he said. ". . . We've had problems over budgets or committee structure, disagreements about schedules." But Reid said he never doubted that Frist did what did "because he believed in his heart it was the right thing."