frank_talk (2006-03)

That Frist Paragraph

It doesn’t help the senator to be in scandal roundups

by Frank Cagle

In the deluge of stories coming out of Washington rounding up the latest iteration of accusations against various Republican scum, almost all of them contain the “Frist paragraph.” At the end of the list of scandals there will be, almost as an afterthought, something like: “Sen. Majority Leader Bill Frist’s sale of his HCA stock is being investigated by the Securities and Exchange Commission.”

The details of Frist’s stock transactions have faded from memory. The fine distinctions, the careful hedging of whether there was an ethics violation, and the prospects of a quick resolution have been forgotten. The Frist scandal is just another paragraph in the cascade of Republican malfeasance perpetrated by former Majority Leader Tom Delay, R-Hell.

It is in some ways beneficial for Frist in that the timing of his HCA stock sale, just before the stock tanked, looks fairly tame in comparison to millions swindled from Indian tribes, congressmen taking bribes, congressmen having lobbyists employ their family members and congressmen introducing legislation in return for campaign contributions. But in the current climate of corruption in Washington, it is certainly not helping Frist to be lumped into stories about the usual suspects. One wonders, as Frist is on the threshold of a presidential run, if he will be able to separate himself in the public mind from the actions of his colleagues—or if he ought to be.

The Bill Frist story is certainly a remarkable one. If you wrote it as a novel, it would not be believable. A heart transplant surgeon in Nashville decides he’d like to be president of the United States. He has been so apolitical that he has never voted. But he gives up saving lives, runs for the U.S. Senate against a three-term incumbent, and wins. By his second term in office he has positioned himself as Senate Majority Leader, a post normally awarded to someone with considerably more longevity.

So within 10 to 12 years the doctor from Nashville is a national figure and a contender for the presidency. Yes, he is smart. And being rich didn’t hurt. But it is still too improbable to be fiction.

It was by no means certain that Frist would be a serious presidential contender even before the stock flap. He is not a household name outside Tennessee or outside the Beltway. He is not a great orator and is, in fact, charismatically challenged. The national press does not love him. Any slack he may have gotten from the Boys (and Girls) on the Bus disappeared when he took to the Senate floor, using his credentials as a doctor to diagnose Terry Shiavo as a sentient being after viewing her on videotape. That isn’t something the national press corps will ever forget—or forgive.

Frist has often been underestimated. From his victory in the Republican primary in 1994 to his unseating of U.S. Sen. Jim Sasser, D-Tenn., in the general election to his elevation to majority leader, his success has demonstrated a single-minded, well thought out and focused approach. He has to be where he is because of supreme self-confidence, discipline and just a little luck. (Granted, former Majority Leader Trent Lott is a moron. But who knew he would decide to wax nostalgic for segregation in a public speech?)

So Frist gives up a profession that few men have ever achieved, successfully transplanting the human heart, and instead devotes his life to Lincoln Day dinners, Washington receptions, fund-raising calls and begging his colleagues to vote for a piece of legislation. Twelve years of concentrated toil learning a new profession in order to put himself in a place where he could go for the White House.

He was able to do that, largely, because of the wealth created by he and his family’s ownership of HCA stock. You would have thought that someone as smart as Frist, with his presidential ambitions, would have sold the HCA stock in 1994, when he first took office. It had to be a recurring issue, given the deep involvement of the federal government in health care. Ownership of HCA stock also put him high on the list of targets of special interest groups in the health care field, from non-profit hospitals to health care advocates to all those who want universal health care. Owning stock in for-profit hospitals, yea, even the largest for-profit hospital chain in America, put a target on his back. The wonder is that the HCA stock issue hasn’t come back to bite him before now.

As I said, Frist has often been underestimated during his improbable political career. It may be that he can overcome being a stiff, arrogant, off-putting rich boy and win the hearts and minds of the American people. But the Republican scandals currently buffeting Washington may just be a bridge too far.

At least, in Frist’s case, he won’t have to become a lobbyist if he flames out. He can go back to saving lives.

Frank Cagle is a political analyst and the editor of Knoxville Magazine . You can reach him at .