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Rosty the White Man

Did Bill Frist use Marion Barry as a racial ploy?

One of my rules as a journalist is never to interrupt two bloggers in the process of mauling each other. This week I have to make an exception. Josh Marshall and Slate’s Mickey Kaus have been carrying on a nasty but illuminating exchange about whether Bill Frist used racial code words in his 1994 Senate campaign. While the rest of the media have glossed over the story (evidently sated after devouring Trent Lott), Kaus and Marshall have dug into the telling details.

Here’s the state of play. Marshall brought up a line Frist delivered, in various forms, at least three times in his race against Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn. Frist said, “While I’ve been transplanting lungs and hearts to heal Tennesseans, Jim Sasser has been transplanting Tennesseans’ wallets to Washington, home of Marion Barry.” Marshall asked “what on earth [Barry] had to do with a Senate race in Tennessee.” Kaus replied that “Sasser was chair of the Senate subcommittee in charge of” D.C., and Barry had boasted of his relationship with Sasser “and others in the Congress who control our budget.”

Marshall pointed out that Barry wasn’t mayor in 1994. Kaus replied that Barry was on the D.C. council and was winning the race for mayor that year. Kaus added that Barry “grew up in Tennessee. … That’s another reason why Bill Frist might have used Barry as the personification of D.C. government waste.” Marshall retorted that when Frist was asked what Barry had to do with the federal treasury, all Frist could think to say was, “Not very much, but Marion Barry symbolizes a lot about what people think about politics today.” The “common-sense understanding of Frist’s use of Barry,” Marshall concluded, “is that he was an uppity-you-know-what who got videotaped in a hotel room smoking crack.”

So who’s right? Of the various remarks for which Frist has been accused of racial demagoguery, I think Marshall has picked the right one. The others, involving sharp pencils and the word “jungle” (used by a Frist supporter), are too peripheral and ambiguous to merit charges of racism. The Barry line, however, seems to meet the Lott standard: It’s open to innocent interpretations but conveys a racial message to anyone who wants to hear it that way. Like Marshall, I get suspicious whenever a white politician denounces an unpopular black person before a white audience.

I went back to Frist’s 1994 campaign in search of evidence for the race-baiting theory. Instead, I found good evidence against it—evidence that the Associated Press, New York Times, and Los Angeles Times didn’t include in stories mentioning the Barry remark. In July 1994, three months before he brought up Barry, Frist aired a TV ad that depicted Sasser’s face on Mount Rushmore alongside the faces of Bill Clinton, Ted Kennedy, and Dan Rostenkowski. The ad called them “tax and spend career politicians.” Rostenkowski was under indictment and was eventually jailed for misappropriating government funds.

You can argue that Rostenkowski, like Barry, had little to do with Tennessee. But that’s the point. Racism requires differential treatment. Frist reached for every villain he could hang on Sasser. Black or white, he didn’t care.