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Jewish World Review Dec. 30, 2002/ 25 Teves, 5763

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

There's a doctor in the senate | "Healing" is a soppy and much abused word, a mantra of hip psychology, but it has been given new meaning by the new Republican majority leader. Sen. Bill Frist fuses with Dr. Bill Frist, and the Senate's only physician doesn't use the word "healing" lightly.

He's not talking about the laying on of hands, witch-doctor voodoo or the gobbledygook of synthetic spirituality. Dr. Frist knows how difficult it is to transplant a human heart. When he says the word "Medicare," it doesn't sound like a glib appeal for votes. He speaks of health-care disparities from personal experience. No one can accuse him of distancing himself from the problem (although it's only a matter of time until someone will).

He has a chance to bring a fresh debate from inside the hospital to inside the Beltway, in and outside the Congress, to talk about the best way to make the health-care system work better. He might even get us beyond ideology.

Dr. Frist's first speech in his new role was refreshingly unslick. He came off as an authentic original in Washington politics because his rhetoric doesn't echo focus groups or polls. For a man noted for his intellectual arrogance, he expressed a humility before the tasks ahead of him.

He extended the analogy of healing to the nation, talking about the need for all of us, black and white, to heal the "wounds of division" reopened during the past few weeks. The word "reopened" is exact because these wounds had been sewn up and were, in fact, "healing."

Anyone can measure how far we have come from the bad old days of segregation mandated by law in a dozen of the states (and the District of Columbia). Leaders in both races ought to be able to say that without appeals to hypocrisy. Blacks do continue to make up a disproportionate number of the underclass, caused in part by high rates of illegitimate births, often to the poorest and youngest women, but an increasing proportion of blacks have moved up the ladder of opportunity through education and hard work, just like the poor of other minorities. We must find ways for everyone in the underclass to have a chance to do that.

The surest way to do that is to insure a colorblind society that appeals to common goals. Segregation of the mind is as dangerous as segregation of the heart. Two decades ago, William Styron, a white novelist born in Virginia, wrote a wonderful novel called "The Confessions of Nat Turner," a fictional presentation of an actual black slave who led a revolt in 1831.

Black intellectuals and writers attacked the book, often viciously, on the odd grounds that a white man couldn't understand the black experience and thus should not have tried to write a book with such a theme. But "Nat Turner" was about black and white blind spots, flaws of humanity, and it didn't really make any difference what the color of the talented writer was.

Nathaniel Hawthorne was hardly an adulterous woman, but he wrote "The Scarlet Letter," which became an American classic. You don't have to be a whale to appreciate "Moby Dick."

In the debate over racism, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton sound much like those black intellectuals who attacked Styron's "Nat Turner," as if trapped in a deadlocked ideology that suggests that only black rabble-rousers have the right to formulate the solutions to the problems of the black underclass. They perpetuate a debilitating mentality of victimhood that hurts those it purports to help the most. They sound as if they want to keep divisive discussions alive.

By quickly replacing Trent Lott as majority leader, the Republicans defused a festering debate and gave the nation a second chance to acknowledge that Strom Thurmond lost his racist argument a long time ago. The overwhelming negative reaction to Lott's remark testifies to that.

Donna Brazile, a black woman who is credited for getting out the black vote for Sen. Mary L. Landrieu in Louisiana last month, says it's time for blacks to look ahead. "Our civil rights agenda can't be based on what happened 30 or 40 years ago," she told The New York Times.

We can disagree on how to move America forward, but her point is clear enough. Frist got the sentiment right, calling for a holiday season that focuses on friends, our purpose in life and what we mean to each other. Soon enough we'll be back to the political debates for 2003. But for now we can wish each other a happy New Year.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS