Person of Pander 

Senator Frist is shedding principles to make his presidential run.

Totally by mistake, I was summoned to meet Senator Bill Frist shortly after he first arrived in Washington. This happened because someone in Frist's office confused me with the congressional-affairs correspondent of the National Journal, Richard E. Cohen, but I stayed to meet Frist anyway and found him impressive.

Time and tide has changed my view of him. He is now the Senate majority leader and an undeclared but neon-lit presidential candidate who is getting into shape for the long run to the White House by shedding anything that weighs him down. In his case, it's principles.

Frist initially led the Senate's effort to keep poor Terri Schiavo alive, even though every court that had heard her case had concluded she was, technically and sadly, dead. Now Frist will be joining a religious telecast that will attack Democrats as being hostile to "people of faith." It will focus on the filibuster, which the Democrats have used to block 10 of George Bush's 229 judicial appointments.

Some of the nominees are quaintly anachronistic in their views, but, to a person, they believe in God, or so they aver, and must be supported, no matter what else they think or do. Being a person of faith apparently means not having to be a person of thought.

"The filibuster was once abused to protect racial bias, and it is now being used against people of faith," the telecast's sponsoring organization has declared

I am pausing now to wonder if the phrase "people of faith" is meant to include Muslims of several wives, Hindus of several deities, or even the odd person here and there who believes, as I am sometimes tempted to, that God can be found in a pint of Ben & Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. I think somehow, however, that "people of faith" is meant to embrace only conservative Christians and maybe Orthodox Jews who are sometimes lumped together as Judeo-Christians. People of faith, you may rest assured, are people of their faith. All others need not apply.

I don't think a gay Presbyterian would be considered a person of faith, no matter how devout, nor, for that matter, would a pro-choice Methodist -- say someone such as Hillary Clinton. It would certainly not include a Baptist like husband Bill or a Jew like Chuck Schumer or, I venture to say, an Episcopalian like John McCain, a person whose faith sustained him in a Vietnamese prison. As for a Roman Catholic such as Ted Kennedy, whose faith informs his liberalism, take it on faith he would not be considered a person of faith.

The phrase would also exclude anyone of any faith who believed in a limited role for religion in public life, especially the schools, if only on the pragmatic grounds that otherwise we will be at each other's throats. This is a lesson of history.

What Senate Democrats lack is not faith but 50 votes. Frist knows this, of course, but his mad pursuit of the presidency requires him to prove to the Christian right, the core base of the Republican Party, that their cause comes before his principles.

He did this with Terri Schiavo, going so far as to use his medical bona fides (he's a heart surgeon) to view a videotape of the poor woman and pronounce her somewhat alert. Now he is lending his name and his fast-diminishing prestige to this reprehensible effort to enlist faith on the side of a single political issue. This sort of stuff will not, as he hopes, make him the next president of the United States. Instead, it shows what raw ambition has made him:

A person of pander. •

Richard Cohen is a member of the Washington Post Writers Group.


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