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Farewell to Senator Bill Frist, R-Frist Family | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Farewell to Senator Bill Frist, R-Frist Family

It is too bad that outgoing Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tennessee, had decided not to seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2OO6.

It would have been entertaining to watch this sorry excuse for a senator try and explain a political journey that deadended when the physician-turned-legislator diagnosed brain-damaged Terry Schiavo via videotape -- producing an assessment of her condition that completely contradicted that of doctors who had actually examined her.

The storm that followed his intervention in the Schiavo case represented the only instance in which most Americans actually noticed that Frist was one of the nation's most powerful political leaders.

After a number of earlier missteps, Frist had tended to avoid the limelight because he never did very well when he was in it --as the Schiavo fiasco so potently illustrated -- and because his primary purpose in the Senate, that of enriching his already wealthy family, was not exactly the sort of thing that politicians brag about.

The wealthy doctor ran for the Senate in 1994 with a simple mission: to prevent health care reforms that might pose a threat to his family's stake in Columbia/HCA, the nation's leading owner of hospitals. There was never going to be anything honorable about his service, but nothing all that embarrassing in a Washington that welcomes self-serving senators with open arms.

For almost a decade, Frist was a comfortably forgettable legislator -- a good hair, good suit, bad politics man of the Senate. Then, former Senate Majority Leader and soon-to-be Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, went all segregationist at States Rights Party presidential candidate Strom Thurmond's going-away party in 2002. The Bush administration needed another prissy southerner to ride herd on the Senate. Frist fit the bill, moved into the nice office and became a comfortably forgettable Senate Majority Leader.

With the Republican-controlled Congress rendered irrelevant by its complete subservience to the Bush administration's political agenda, Frist quietly went back to the business of protecting the family business.

Things got seriously dicey for Frist only in the presidential election year of 2OO4, when the Bush administration found itself short on defenders. Everyone seemed to be turning state's evidence on the president. The ex-Secretary of the Treasury, the former Senior Director for Combating Terrorism on the National Security Council Staff and, now, the former counterterrorism chief in the Bush and Clinton White Houses had all come forward to suggest that Bush and Vice President Cheney really had missed the point of the war of terrorism -- badly. Suddenly, Americans were waking up to the fact that the rest of the world already knew: Iraq was not tied to al-Qaeda, had no weapons of mass destruction and posed no serious threat to the United States or its neighbors at the time that the administration committed this country to the course of quagmire.

The administration had few credible spokespeople left. The White House couldn't send Bush out in his "Mission Accomplished" flight suit. Vice President Dick Cheney was still trying to explain that Halliburton really hadn't set new standards for war profiteering. And then-National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice was having a very hard time explaining that she really, really, really did know what al-Qaeda was before counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke explained it to her.

The administration needed a Spiro Agnew to go out and start calling people names. And Bill Frist became, for a brief but not exactly shining moment in the spring of 2OO4, the White House's defender-in-chief.

The majority leader took to the floor of the Senate to denounce Clarke. "Mr. Clarke makes the outrageous charge that the Bush Administration, in its first seven months in office, failed to adequately address the threat posed by Osama bin Laden," Frist began. "I am troubled by these charges. I am equally troubled that someone would sell a book, trading on their former service as a government insider with access to our nation's most valuable intelligence, in order to profit from the suffering that this nation endured on September 11, 2001."

That was rich, considering the fact that Frist's Senate service had been about nothing so much as profiting from the suffering of the nation. By blocking needed health care reforms, pushing for tort reforms that would limit malpractice payouts and supporting moves to privatize Medicare, Frist pumped up his family's fortunes at the expense of Americans who lacked access to health care. As Mother Jones explained, "Some companies hire lobbyists to work Congress. Some have their executives lobby directly. But Tennessee's Frist family, the founders of Columbia/HCA Healthcare Corp., the nation's largest hospital conglomerate, has taken it a step further: They sent an heir to the Senate. And there, with disturbingly little controversy, Republican Sen. Bill Frist has co-sponsored bills that may allow his family's company to profit from the ongoing privatization of Medicare."

The Frists fared well during the senator's two terms. An $800-million stake in HCA that his father and brother had at the time Frist was elected in 1994 shot up in value over the decade that followed. Frist's brother, Thomas, rose steadily on the Forbes magazine list of the world's richest people in recent years. In 2003, Forbes estimated that Thomas Frist Jr. was worth $1.5 billion. According to Forbes: "source: health care."

So Bill Frist certainly knew a thing or two about profiteering from human misery.

Of course, when he attacked Clarke, Frist wasn't really concerned about September 11 suffering. He was simply looking for any way to discredit one of the few members of the Bush administration who had tried to take terrorist threats seriously. The problem with Frist's attack was that Clarke had already made a commitment to donate substantial portions of the earnings from his book, "Against All Enemies," to the families of the 9/11 dead and to the widows and orphans of Special Forces troops who died in Afghanistan and Iraq.

Oops.

Frist didn't just come off as a hypocrite, he looked like a fool. But he looked like an even bigger fool when, in an attempt to claim Clarke had lied to Congress, Frist demanded that transcripts of Clarke' 2002 congressional testimony to be declassified. Clarke's response? "I would welcome it being declassified But not just a little line here and there -- let's declassify all six hours of my testimony." Then, Clarke added, "Let's declassify that memo I sent on January 25. And let's declassify the national security directive that Dr. Rice's committee approved nine months later, on September 4. And let's see if there's any difference between those two, because there isn't. Let's go further. The White House is now selectively finding my e-mails, which I would have assumed are covered by some privacy regulations, and selectively leaking them to the press. Let's take all of my e-mails and memos that I sent to the national security adviser and her deputy from January 20 to September 11, and let's declassify all of it."

Suitably shot down, Frist then took to defending Condoleezza Rice's refusal to testify in public and under oath before the National Commission on Terrorist Attacks Upon the United State -- only to have the administration decide to have her testify.

It was at that point that Frist began to recognize that he was not exactly ready for the political primetime.

Before the Clarke catastrophe, there had been talk that Frist might replace Dick Cheney if the Bush political team decided to force the vice president off the 2004 ticket -- an admittedly dubious prospect, as Cheney remained firmly in charge both of the policy and political operations at the White House. After Frist's flip out, however, even Republican loyalists started asking whether the senator was good for anything other than taking care of the family's health care investments.

A year later, with his Schiavo diagnosis, whatever credibility his medical degree might have given Frist was gone.

When he decided not to seek reelection in 2OO6, no one was surprised, or particularly upset.

When he decided not to seek the party's presidential nomination in 2OO8, Republicans breathed a sigh of relief.

After 12 years of political malpractice, Dr. Frist is retiring to the obscurity he so richly deserves -- unless, of course, ethics investigators take an interest in how his family's fortunes rose during an otherwise undistinguished Senate tenure.

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John Nichols' new book, THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure for Royalism is being published this month by The New Press. "With The Genius of Impeachment," writes David Swanson, co-founder of the AfterDowningStreet.org coalition, "John Nichols has produced a masterpiece that should be required reading in every high school and college in the United States." Studs Terkel says: "Never within my nonagenarian memory has the case for impeachment of Bush and his equally crooked confederates been so clearly and fervently offered as John Nichols has done in this book. They are after all our public SERVANTS who have rifled our savings, bled our young, and challenged our sanity. As Tom Paine said 200 years ago to another George, a royal tramp: 'Bugger off!' So should we say today. John Nichols has given us the history, the language and the arguments we will need to do so." The Genius of Impeachment can be found at independent bookstores and at www.amazon.com

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