Frist In Line 

Some think the junior senator from Tennessee could be the next vice president. Or even the next president.

PHOTO AP
On a rainy night in October, Senator Bill Frist arrives with a small entourage at the nondescript building in Washington, D.C., containing the studios of the nationally syndicated TV talk show hosted by Charley Rose..Walking briskly, Frist leads the way through the maze of corridors. The junior senator from Tennessee has been here before, as he will be here again. Again and again, in fact.

After the traumatic events of September 11th had roused the people of the United States to a sense of their own peril, and especially after that peril became embodied in the threat of the inivisible but deadly anthrax microbe, Frist, who is forever being described as "the Senate's only physician," had become a much sought-after guest on the talk-show circuit.

One Sunday morning in late September, he had almost made the full circuit of the five major Sunday-morning shows, which would have duplicated a feat so far accomplished only by Bill Ginsberg, Monica Lewinsky's first lawyer. Republican Frist is the co- sponsor, with Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts, of a bill to increase funding for measures against bio-terrorism.

As a member of the Senate's Foreign Relations Committee who has traveled widely in the so-called Third World (frequently on missions of medical relief in Africa), Frist also has a number of things to say about the conduct of foreign policy. Currently, he is chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee and is charged with leading the effort to regain his party's control of the Senate in next year's elections.

Moreover, it is no secret in Washington that Frist, who was one of the final contenders to be George W. Bush's running-mate in 2000, is an intimate of Bush's and was presumed to be in line to succeed Dick Cheney when the vice president's on-again, off-again cardiac condition aroused concern earlier this year.

When he enters the anteroom of the studio where he will be videotaped (host Rose is at a remote location somewhere else in town), Frist is greeted by a woman, the segment's producer, who asks pleasantly, "You're going to be the one?"

"I'm going to be the one," Frist says.

Later, as he is being led away to makeup, the senator jokes, "I won't be too talented ... ."

But he just may -- because Frist is the latest in a historically long string of Tennesseans who have been talked of as potential contenders for the presidency. He is, undeniably, hitting his stride.

ALTHOUGH FRIST CERTAINLY KNOWS HOW TO BANTER -- it is hard to imagine anyone making his way politically without having that skill -- he is serious by nature and, by general agreement of those who have observed him throughout his medical and political careers, a highly focused man. As he sits in a chair facing the camera which will shortly transmit his likeness across the American continent, Frist's studiously impassive face indicates his concentration on the task at hand -- to communicate to a lay audience the dimensions of the current anthrax problem.

He is famous for examining a problem from every conceivable angle and overlooking nothing. On his way to the studio he had discussed, among other things, the annual Marine Corps marathon he was then in training for and the fact that he had lightened up a bit on his daily runs so as not to display the almost spectral gauntness which so many dedicated runners possess -- and which Frist himself owned for a while in recent years. There is, he had conceded, a cosmetic need for anybody who intends to be a spokesman to look reassuringly healthy to an audience. Or to the camera.

"Charlie, how you doing? I'm really good." Frist speaks to the unseen host he is connected with electronically through the cord in his ear. He nods as he gets an answer. The senator holds up several poster cards. Some are bars and graphs, while others contain close-ups of the hands or faces of people suffering from anthrax. Their lesions are black, ugly, and vivid.

"Nobody's ever seen these," he explains. "Nobody knows what anthrax looks like." And he wants to know, in particular, if he'll be able to show the photographs, explaining that the lesions in one photograph of a man's cheek area are the same kind as had been contracted by an infected infant in New York.

PHOTO BY JACKSON BAKER
Senator Frist in make-up prior to appearing on television.
As the taping of his part of the show proceeds, Frist will explain the difference between cutaneous anthrax, "which is 100 percent treatable" with anti-biotics, and "inhalational anthrax," which has already caused one death and will subsequently cause others. The day before, Washington had been rocked by the news that anthrax spores, which had turned up in the mail of NBC news anchor Tom Brokaw, had also been discovered in the office of Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle of South Dakota. Earlier on the day of the taping Frist had conducted a closed-door information session for senators, representatives, and their aides at the Capitol.

"Charlie," he explains, "there's no question that the media have been targeted. There's no question that political figures have been targeted. We have to recognize that we're all vulnerable, but the high risk population is the media and public figures. A thousand people right here in the Capitol are very scared."

He goes on to pump for the Frist-Kennedy bill and the full $1.4 billion funding he's looking for. Having succeeded in showing his clinical photos on national television, he says, "It's very important that we plug holes in the public health infrastructure, that we provide beds and make physicians able to recognize what I just showed you. Ninety-nine and ninety-nine-hundred percent of all physicians have never seen anthrax. Or smallpox, which is contagious. Most physicians have never seen a case. I have never seen one. I had never even seen a picture of smallpox until about two months ago. Right now essentially I have no protection. If you're exposed to smallpox today, you'll get smallpox."

Politician or not, Frist is clearly not disposed to be a Dr. Feelgood. In the wake of the terrorist attacks, he has become a kind of national Dr. 911. For days and weeks to come -- beginning with the day after the Rose show taping, when the House of Representatives suddenly decides to close down and technicians in Haz-Mat suits swarm over Capitol Hill to test offices for anthrax, Frist will the chief spokesperson for for the nation's medical defense. On the Rose show, he explains that the country will just have to "create more vaccine" against smallpox -- some 60 to 80 million doses, compared to the 20 million or so available now.

Nor does he forget to wear his Foreign Relations hat, to back up the Realpolitik of his friend and ally and patron Bush. Toward the end of his segment, Frist abruptly shifts gears and tells Rose, "Coalition building is so important as we charge through these uncharted boundaries. Sudan used to be ... Are you kidding? Do you know what those people have done in the sphere of human rights?"

SUDAN IS ONE OF THE PLACES where Bill Frist, M.D. has gone -- more or less on his own, during time off from congressional sessions -- on pro bono medical missions. Even as he meditates a way up the political ladder, he is still technically on leave from the Vanderbilt University school of medicine

Back in 1994 Frist was best known as a transplant surgeon of national repute and as a scion of the Frist family of Nashville -- doctors, capitalists, and propretors of Hospital Corporation of America, a hugely successful (its detractors would say "monolithic") chain of for-profit hospitals. The family's record of political broad-mindedness was best indicated by its record of financial contributions, which were large, diverse, and non-partisan (one grateful claimant was a sometime Senate candidate named Albert Gore Jr.) and its business partnerships with such well-known Democrats as John Jay Hooker (who -- yes, Virginia -- used to be solvent once upon a time.)

In the 1994 campaign, all this would be brought up relentlessly but to little avail by the five men, most of them better known in Republican circles, who unsuccessfully challenged political neophyte Frist for the GOP's Senate nomination. Nor did the revelation matter much to Tennessee's Republican voters -- or, later, to the state's voters at large -- that, while performing some hands-on research early in his medical career, Frist had made a habit of buying up or claiming or otherwise acquiring all the kittens and stray cats he could get his hands on, which became sacrifices in experiments designed to acquaint Frist with the essentials of mammalian anatomy.

Another potentially embarrassing fact of his former life -- one which, to say the least, attested to an independent streak -- was spoken of more surreptitiously and mainly among Nashvillians with long memories. Frist had once been engaged to marry a young woman who was, like himself, a well-bred member in good standing of Nashville society. Literally within days of his nuptials Frist, a Princeton graduate who was then fresh out of Harvard Medical School and performing his residency at Massachussets General Hospital, would do that which ordinarily occurs only in light-hearted movie comedies; he jilted his fiancÇe, calling off the wedding so close to the saying of vows that the abundant wedding presents at his fiancee's house had to be returned.

PHOTO BY JACKSON BAKER
The senator reviews some research on smallpox.
The root fact was that he had been smitten by a young Boston-area coed from Lubbock, Texas, named Karyn McLaughlin, whom he had treated in the emergency room of Massachusetts General for a sprained wrist. Though she was, then as now, a demure soul who was the furthest thing imaginable from anyone's conception of a femme fatale, the future Mrs. Frist would become the occasion for the future transplant surgeon's first major change of heart. (The couple would go on to have three sons, Harrison,Jonathan, and Bryan.)

In his 1989 book Transplant, which mainly documents the medical career which at that point had made him world-renowned in the rarefied discipline of organ transplants, Frist spends a few pages on the personal anguish he endured at the time he broke off his enagement. But he concludes the section revealingly: "I did not miss a minute of work at Mass General."

Five years later, Frist -- by then director of the Vanderbilt University Transplant Center -- made a sudden decision to wrench loose from his moorings and begin a new career in politics. His reasons were never made entirely clear, but journalist Ed Cromer, then with the Nashville Banner and now editor of The Tennessee Journal, theorizes that Frist, a "driven" man, was impelled to distinguish himself from his illustrious physician father, Dr. Thomas Frist, and businessman brother, Thomas Frist Jr. He had, among other things, become a first-class pilot, but that hobby was too private to let hm make the mark he wanted to achieve. Politics, though an unfamiliar art (perhaps made more attractive because of its very unfamiliarity), was highly visible and therefore perfect.

Though it was revealed during the campaign that Frist had not even bothered to vote until he was 36 years old, he finished a full 12 percentage points ahead of runnerup Bob Corker in the 1994 Republican primary, and, though he was the target of heavy sarcasm from incumbent Democratic senator Jim Sasser, who insisted on calling him "Dr. Frist," Frist would ride that year's Republican wave into office with a margin of 57 percent to Sasser's 43 percent.

He was assisted, of course, by healthy expenditures from his personal and family fortunes that even the self-made Chattanooga businessman Corker had not been able to match, much less the career public servant Sasser.

ONCE IN OFFICE, FRIST WOULD STRIKE a kind of mean between the hard-rock conservatism characterized by his party's congressional leaders, Speaker Newt Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, and the image of moderation which normally surrounds nationally ambitious politicians from Tennessee.

On the one hand, Frist made a point of boasting about his votes in 1998 for both counts of the impeachment indictment against Bill Clinton. He has consistently resisted congressional efforts to pass patients rights legislation that included an untrammeled right by patients to sue their HMOs. (At the moment, Congress is deadlocked between a Senate bill, sponsored by Frist, which lacks such provisions, and a House bill which includes them.)

On the other hand, .Frist struck blows for moderation by standing up for his fellow Nashville physician, William Foster, when then-President Clinton nominated Foster, a professor at Meharry Medical College, as his surgeon-general designate in 1995. Foster, an obstretician, was attacked by many of Frist's fellow Republicans for having performed abortions. He would be ultimately rejected for confirmation, but Frist spoke on Foster's behalf and tried to rally votes for him up until the end.

PHOTO AP
Frist joins fellow senator Tom Daschle in speaking to the media about anthrax.
Similiarly, when new president Bush faced his first real ideological crisis earlier this year over the question of federal funding for stem-cell research, it was Frist who talked the president into taking a compromise position on the issue, allowing funding for research with pre-existing embryonic cells.

Even potential opponents have a sort of grudging respect for Frist's skills in positioning himself. Like U.S. Rep. Harold Ford Jr., who thought long and hard about opposing Frist for the Senate last year (and might have done so if his uncle Joe Ford's convincing defeat by incumbent Willie Herenton in the 1999 Memphis mayoral race not not made his continued hold on his 9th District congressional seat crucial for the Ford family's political fortunes).

For some time Ford and Frist carried on a rhetorical battle over patients' rights, and they still differ on the issue. A kind of shadow rivalry continues, consciously or unconsciously, to the point that Ford held his own bio-terrorism summit in Memphis in October on the same day that Frist was conducting one in Nashville. But what is Ford's reaction to Frist's current efforts to raise the national consciousness on issues of bio-terrorism? "Bless his heart," he says, tongue only partly in cheek.

IT IS IRONIC THAT ONLY FORD, who has achieved almost rock-star status with the Beltway media, rivals Frist as a fast swimmer in the piranha-filled pools of political Washington. When he got to town in early 1995 Frist was assigned an office in the upper attic of the Hart Senate Building. Literally, he was situated further from the seat of government than any other member of Congress. "The ceilings were so low I had to cut off the bottoms of my flag so they would fit," Frist remembers wryly.

The fact that he is now so widely considered to be on the very edge of national office and is regarded as a special confidante of Bush's has to do with many factors, including Frist's early support for the Texan's presidential efforts. (By contrast, Fred Thompson, Tennessee's senior senator and a once rising political star in his own right, supported first Lamar Alexander for president, then John McCain.) But, shrugs Frist, "personality factors probably have a lot to do with it."

It may be impolitic to say so, but Frist's intellectual gifts and success in so forbidding a field as transplant surgery might be useful attributes to be basked in vicariously by a president whose mental acumen, even in his new season as a national hero, is suspect.

Asked about the presidential-timber talk one hears, Frist tries to be dismissive "Ah, you must be talking about Fred Thompson." But then, more seriously, he muses, "That sort of thing, honestly, is just not a goal of mine. A lot of people like to move up from local politics to Congress to the Senate. And then all these senators want to be president of the United States; all of them do! And I just -- I'm out of a different cut. You've seen a little bit of that tonight." We had just been spending time in Frist's personal office, where he and a staff had spent several hours working on his senatorial Web site -- http://www.senate.gov/~frist/ -- keeping it current with the breaking facts of the medical emergency.

"I'm just different!"Frist repeated.

But maybe not all that much. Reminded that he had incurred some bad feeling -- and political opposition -- among some of his fellow Tennessee physicians as a result of his stand on the patients' rights issue, First smiled and said, "Yeah,they supported the Patients' Bill of Rights. They followed the AMA [American Medical Association} and the AMA got in bed with the trial lawyers. I had to do what was right. I won. The physicians down there, when they got in bed with the trial lawyers, they didn't realize it. They're down there taking care of people every day. They don't pay attention to politics. They just trust the trial lawyers. And you just can't do that, because the trial lawyers will end up suing you."

Frist continued. "They .have motivations because they don't like HMOs. But they listen to trial lawyers to do the fix, instead" -- takes a deep breath -- "of listening to me and the president of the United States!."

The grin says it all. Bill Frist is having his moment just now, and he likes it just fine. There is, he suggests, more and better to come.

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
    • Bus Stopped: The Battle over Route 31

      The controversial elimination of a key bus route illuminates larger issues facing Memphis’ public transportation system.
    • Shop Local, Memphis!

      Dozens of great gift ideas from local merchants and makers.
    • Election 2016: WTF?

      Trump upsets all expectations; wins presidency.

Blogs

News Blog

Trader Joe's Project Back on Track

From My Seat

Boca, Bartow, and Backflips

Film/TV/Etc. Blog

Music Video Monday: Richard James

Tiger Blue

Ole Miss 85, Tigers 77

Fly On The Wall Blog

Tony Allen's Big D Beats Stiff Competition

Intermission Impossible

Naughty & Nice: What's on Stage this Christmas?

News Blog

Etsy Declares Memphis an "Official Maker City"

ADVERTISEMENT

More by Jackson Baker

Readers also liked…

  • Memphis Burning

    The horrific lynching of Ell Persons was national news in 1917, then forgotten. Nearly 100 years later, his story is coming back to life.
    • Feb 4, 2016
  • American Dreamers

    Meet two Hispanic students who are fighting the odds — and hoping to make a difference for others in their situation.
    • Jan 14, 2016
  • UPDATE: Bike Lanes, Turn Lanes Headed to Union Avenue

    • Jun 9, 2015
ADVERTISEMENT
© 1996-2016

Contemporary Media
460 Tennessee Street, 2nd Floor | Memphis, TN 38103
Visit our other sites: Memphis Magazine | Memphis Parent | Inside Memphis Business
Powered by Foundation