IT WAS an unusual way for Senate Republicans to elect a majority leader: a quickly arranged telephone conference call during congressional recess. But then, the manner in which Sen. Trent Lott vacated the majority leader's post was equally unusual. His departure due to racially corrosive remarks was matched in execution only by the speed with which his fellow Republicans and the White House abandoned him in favor of Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee.
The incoming majority leader comes without the kind of racial baggage that ultimately weighed down Mr. Lott. To be sure, Mr. Frist's record is being searched for signs of racial insensitivity and callousness toward civil rights. He must stand on, explain and, where necessary, defend his record. The country should be prepared to hear him out and then make a judgment. In his acceptance speech yesterday, Mr. Frist told his GOP colleagues, "We must dedicate ourselves to healing those wounds of division that have been reopened so prominently in the past few weeks." But if the U.S. Senate is to regain its luster as a respected legislative body capable of careful deliberation and civility, more than a leadership change is required. The Senate itself has to act with more maturity and concern for racial divisions and the public welfare than it has exhibited in recent years under Republican and Democratic leadership.
That's not to say Bill Frist is not a welcome change from Trent Lott. The Mississippi senator is leaving the leadership displaying some of the same obtuseness that landed him in hot water in the first place. Looking back on his recent fall from grace, Mr. Lott over the weekend blamed his troubles on a "trap" set by political enemies and "a lot of people in Washington" who don't like you if "you're from Mississippi and you're a conservative and you're a Christian." Now, the only trap most of us noticed was the one Mr. Lott opened during the Strom Thurmond 100th birthday party 21/2 weeks ago. As for conservatives in Washington, we would think -- judging from the current makeup of Congress and the White House -- that they are faring quite well. The same might be said of Christians, who, as best we can tell, have more than held their own in the history of the American presidency, the House of Representatives, the Senate and the federal judiciary. But, then again, Trent Lott is known for his special take on such things.
In contrast, Bill Frist comes to the leadership with a reputation as one who knows how to bring people together. It is a skill sorely needed in both the Republican caucus and the Senate as a whole. Keeping the Senate focused on the nation's business, as opposed to the minutiae of petty partisan political gain, will be a challenge for Mr. Frist. No stranger to political hardball himself -- he was chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee that helped produce a GOP Senate last month -- Mr. Frist will have to balance partisan battles with the need to address such issues as national defense (the nation, after all, is at war), the sluggish economy and growing budget deficit, Social Security, Medicare and the health care system. Fashioning a response to the nation's racial fissures -- laid bare and made worse by the Lott affair -- must also be a priority of Republicans and Democrats in the coming Congress. Mr. Frist's close ties to the White House need not be an impediment to getting things done. They could, in fact, be an asset, provided the new majority leader avoids becoming a rubber stamp in the hands of President Bush and Karl Rove. The Senate, under Republican leadership, must demonstrate a capacity to fashion a forward-looking and positive legislative agenda of its own.