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Hello, Strom

Upon hearing that President Bush visited injured military personnel at Walter Reed Army Medical Center on Friday, HOH wanted to know whether the commander in chief paid a visit to former Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).

Sounding relatively lucid and chipper, the 100-year-old Thurmond answered his own phone in the room

he inhabits in the VIP section of the hospital.

“He came by to see me,” Thurmond said slowly in his unmistakable drawl. The president’s chat with Thurmond wasn’t publicized so there was no mention of it in the report filed by the pool of journalists who travelled from the White House to Walter Reed.

Thurmond, however, was happy to talk briefly about his time with Bush. He said they discussed “nothing in particular” during the president’s stop in his room.

“Doing fine,” Thurmond added about how he’s dealing with life after the Senate. He’s been living in the hospital for over a year so that he has closer access to medical care but is expected to soon move to another hospital room specially built for him in his hometown in South Carolina.

Just as HOH tried to get in a question about the infamous birthday party that ousted Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) from the Majority Leader’s post, someone asked Thurmond to give up the phone.

“My wife is here,” the former Senator said of Nancy Thurmond, his estranged wife who once had designs on his seat in the chamber.

She quickly warmed to the topic of Bush’s visit. “He and Laura came by,” said Nancy Thurmond.

“They came by to see Strom and Secretary Mineta,” she added of Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta, who has been recuperating in his own room.

As for Thurmond and Bush, Nancy Thurmond concluded, “They had a very nice conversation that covered family and friends. It was a very nice visit.”

Fashion Statement. With so many Democratic Senators throwing their hats into the presidential ring, journalists are coming up with creative ways to read the tea leaves on who might be next.

In order to divine the plans of Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), insiders may just have to take a gander at his neckties. He’s known for only sporting neckties that are designed with a bland cutout of the shape of his home state, regardless of what color suit he’s wearing.

“If I come out one day with a tie with all 50 states, you’ll know,” Graham told HOH. “It would not be a signal of intentions. It would be a signal of my commitment” to a race.

Graham added that he may start experimenting with neckwear that features American flags. “Or possibly ties that look like Iowa,” he said.

Fries With That? If he had gone ahead with plans to become a high-priced lobbyist, Mitch Bainwol would be lunching at a different fancy restaurant on K Street just about every day of the week.

But Bainwol got the call from new Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) to serve as the doctor’s chief of staff. The Bainwol Group has been temporarily mothballed and the staffer has been plunged back into 15-hour days in the Capitol, left to fend for himself in the cafeterias.

So there was Bainwol trudging through the second floor of the Capitol with a plate of food just after 2 p.m. last Thursday, telling HOH that this was his first chance to grab a quick bit of nourishment in between the nonstop crush of meetings.

Just then Frist came breezing past the Ohio Clock and took a gander at Bainwol’s “lunch,” which turned out to be a pile of about 2 pounds of french fries. If there was a main dish underneath the pile of grease, a search party might have had a hard time finding it.

As he surveyed the food, the fit Frist responded with a lift of the eyebrows and a wry frown as he headed into the Senate chamber to vote.

It was left to Carl Hulse, Congressional correspondent for The New York Times, to pass on some advice to Bainwol. “You probably shouldn’t have a heart surgeon look at that lunch,” he joked.

Frist’s Feng Shui. Frist’s press office seems to have found just the right balance now that Bob Stevenson and Paul Jacobsen have been added to an already formidable team of communicators.

Stevenson and Jacobsen, who both toiled as reporters in New Hampshire ages ago, later worked together on the staff of then-Sen. Warren Rudman (R-N.H.).

“He went off to make movies,” Stevenson told HOH. “I became a budget geek. So you’ve got the yin and the yang.”

Indeed, after a stint with then-Senate Minority Leader Bob Dole’s (R-Kan.) leadership office and ’88 presidential campaign, Jacobsen worked in the entertainment industry. Stevenson served under Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) as a longtime spokesman for the Budget Committee.

The duo will be working with Ginny Wolfe, former spokeswoman at the National Republican Senatorial Committee, who is now Frist’s communications director. Stevenson said the team will also benefit from the “outstanding” experience of Nick Smith, spokesman in Frist’s personal office. Smith is assisted by two deputies.

Frosted Flake. At the start of just his second term in the House, does Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) already have designs on taking out Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.)?

That’s the way it looked last week, when the Congressman’s uncle was being sworn in as Speaker of the Arizona House of Representatives.

As he was reading the motion into the record, state lawmaker Phil Hanson accidentally appointed “Jeff Flake” instead of “Jake Flake.”

“There’s too darn many Flakes around here,” Hanson cracked, according to the Arizona Republic, before correcting the mistake.

The Congressman, meanwhile, joked that his very brief time in the job proved that he is a loyal conservative on budget matters. “I didn’t spend any money,” he quipped.

Byrd vs. McCain. Chalk one up to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) in his long-running battle with Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.).

As Byrd continued Friday to pound away at Bush on many fronts during consideration of the omnibus spending bill, McCain interrupted. McCain asserted that Byrd’s attack on the administration’s policy on North Korea was violating the “Pastore Rule,” which stipulates that debate has to be germane to the matter at hand during the first three hours of debate on a bill.

Byrd retorted that his comments were certainly relevant to the $3.9 billion of defense money in the omnibus bill. “The Senator from Arizona hasn’t shown me the courtesy of even hearing my speech,” snapped Byrd.

“I again ask for the ruling of the chair,” McCain responded. “The remarks that the Senator from West Virginia is making are in the managers’ amendment and they’re not included in the present bill.”

But the presiding officer ruled in favor of Byrd, who soaked up the moment. “I thank the chair for the ruling,” he said. “I’m just sorry that I was interrupted on this matter. I wouldn’t interrupt any Senator here on a speech that he’s making. I wouldn’t do that.”

There’s some history between the two men. When McCain led one of his many crusades against wasteful spending several years ago, Byrd — the legendary pork barreler — whipped out a piece of paper he had received during one of his stints as Appropriations Chairman. The 1991 letter from McCain was seeking federal money from the committee.

“If we are going to be critical of the Appropriations Committee and of other Senators for supporting road projects in their states, we should have some hesitancy about writing to the Appropriations Committee and requesting support for one’s own state projects of the same nature,” Byrd cracked.