Sen. Bill Frist is in the midst of one of those sublime Washington weeks where his stature seems to grow every day. And he doesn't have to do anything -- except keep quiet and foster (through back channels) the notion that he doesn't want to be Senate majority leader if Trent Lott leaves. He doesn't want this job or need this job -- despite the apparent interest of the White House and several Senate Republicans. He has achieved a rarefied political station: reluctant savior.
Frist, the Tennessee Republican, is the sought, not the seeker. He is the sober phenom who is not seen as angling for the position (like Don Nickles), unready for it (Rick Santorum) or desperate for it (Lott). He is taking no position on Lott's future, making no comments to the media except to dispel reports that he has taken a position. He is biding his time, reluctantly.
"By his reluctance, Frist intrigued me immediately," says Mario Cuomo, the former New York governor who became the prototype of political reluctance in the late 1980s and early 1990s when he declined to run for president -- despite rampant urging from Democrats and public agonizing by himself. Ultimately, Cuomo's reluctance dragged on to a point of self-parody. He became "Hamlet on the Hudson," a cautionary figure in the political maxim of "good things come to those who wait -- but not for too long."
Asked about his own deliberations, Cuomo says: "I'm reluctant to get into my own situation, because it's so annoying."
But if played right, reluctance can be political magic. This is the art of shrouding obvious ambition in sheepish unconcern, while at the same time betraying enough interest to keep people interested. "It's the elegant choreography of being ambitious without being grasping," says New Hampshire Republican activist Tom Rath. "There is a certain almost classical attractiveness to being [Roman general] Cincinnatus. He was called back from the farm to save the Republic. The reluctant warrior."
Colin Powell became iconic -- elevated from merely esteemed -- when he was reluctant to run for president in 1996. He was a national crush who wouldn't have us. (Did he think we were ugly? Did we want him too much and scare him off? For whatever reason, we weren't worthy.)
Dwight Eisenhower was publicly urged to run for president for years before he actually did, and it lent the general even more stature. George W. Bush was well-served by his repeated claim that he would be just as happy to proceed with his life in Austin. Al Gore, on the other hand, was dogged by the conceit that he'd been planning his presidential campaign since kindergarten.
Presidential candidates, even after showing the requisite reluctance for the job, still must make a spirited show of wanting it. Bob Kerrey, for example, gave the impression of being too reluctant -- unprepared, uninterested, even apathetic -- during his disastrous campaign for president in 1992. He spent a great deal of time watching movies in the back of his campaign van.
"You can't judge from the outside whether someone's eagerness for a job is a delusion or genuine," cautions Cuomo.
Still, reluctance lends the appearance of a politician being in the arena for all the right reasons. "In general, the candidates who don't need it are in the game to accomplish something big," author and Republican speechwriter Peggy Noonan says in an e-mail. "The candidates who need it may or may not be, but usually their politics is marked by an unusual . . . philosophical flexibility." She adds that "Clinton was about Clinton; Reagan was about philosophy; people can tell."
But Clinton was also an extraordinarily successful politician, proof that reluctance is just one attribute in a broader portfolio of skills. Every presidential candidate is ambitious by definition, but each inhabitant of the office brought a jumble of demons and desires to the enterprise -- some combination of need, want, desperation and obligation. There is no proven recipe for success. "Calvin Coolidge didn't need it" -- it being the presidency -- "and was a good president," Noonan says. FDR did and was great. Truman didn't and was good, same with Eisenhower. "JFK needed it and was . . . well, unfinished. LBJ needed it and might fairly be called a disaster. Nixon needed it and was -- Nixon!"
As a general rule, Noonan says, there is no playbook for how to deftly deploy reluctance. "Ultimately, all politics is case by case," she says.
But certain rituals demand different degrees of reluctance. Prospective vice presidential candidates, for instance, must always play down their interest in the job -- until they're actually offered it. "The reluctance of running mates to be running mates is almost always a feigned reluctance," says ABC News political director Mark Halperin. Otherwise, a would-be vice president runs the risk of actually wanting a second-fiddle job.
But it remains a quirk of Washington that perceived ambition can be toxic in this ultimate striver's realm. "You don't want to be Tracy Flick," says Jeff Smith, a political science lecturer at Washington University in St. Louis. He is referring to the heinously calculating candidate for class president played by Reese Witherspoon in the 1999 film "Election." "If you become the managing partner of a law firm faster than anyone, then you're the man," says Smith. "But if you're John Edwards, and you talk about running for president after only four years, it's like, wait a minute. There's a line here, pal."
After just eight years in the Senate, Bill Frist may not need to stand in line. "You get the feeling Frist is thinking three or four moves ahead," says James A. Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University. "I think he's very ambitious, which is why he's being reluctant."
Fittingly, Frist declined comment through a spokesman yesterday.
. . . biding his time on the GOP majority post
Sen. Bill Frist, left, keeping a little space between himself and Sen. Trent Lott, right.