Published on October 07, 2009
By Jeff Woods
Published on October 07, 2009 at 8:32am
Library shelves groan with self-admiring political memoirs. now Bill Frist has produced another one.Never say Frist doesn't learn from his mistakes. In his 1989 autobiography Transplant, he admitted that as a medical student he adopted cats from animal shelters, "treat[ed] them like pets for a few days," then took them to a lab to die in research experiments. He blamed this conduct on the pressures of med school.
"And I was totally schizoid about the entire matter," Frist wrote. "By day, I was little Billy Frist, the boy who lived on Bowling Avenue in Nashville and had decided to become a doctor because of his gentle father and a dog named Scratchy. By night, I was Dr. William Harrison Frist, future cardiothoracic surgeon, who was not going to let a few sentiments about cute, furry little creatures stand in the way of his career. In short, I was going a little crazy."
That bit of honesty cost Frist no little embarrassment in his 1994 Senate campaign, when he was mocked as a cat killer. So don't look for any such critical self-examination in Frist's new book, A Heart to Serve (Center Street), which he signs 7 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 13 at Davis-Kidd. In this updated story of his life, he admits to not a single act—nor even so much as a passing thought—that anyone might possibly criticize.
Meet Dudley Do-Right, Norman Vincent Peale and Albert Schweitzer all wrapped up into one awesome human being—earnest and selfless, relentlessly positive, truly inspirational and extra smart too. That Frist is a great guy, even if he does say so himself on almost every one of this buttery book's 346 pages.
When the former majority leader gave his 2006 farewell speech to the Senate, "My fellow senators and the audience in the gallery rose in what seemed a single motion into a somewhat overwhelming standing ovation." And why not? As his book's subtitle says, Frist has "the passion to bring health, hope and healing."
It's actually a shame Frist chose to write his book in such a self-serving way. A more candid account of his public life might have contributed to the civil public discourse he claims throughout the book to champion. Does this heart-lung transplant surgeon have anything useful to say, for instance, about the health-care debate? If so, it's not in this book. Instead, he trots out the usual Republican pabulum, i.e., government-run health care is bad: "To me, a 21st century American health-care system should be patient-centered, consumer-driven and provider-friendly." Way to go out on a limb, Dr. Frist.
Frist argues his experience as a young physician employed by the British National Health Service solidified his opposition to socialized medicine and the single-payer system. "The rationing of health care was overt in England," he writes, "whereas in the United States we had (and have) a much more covert sort of rationing based on ability to pay and on varying access to insurance."
So the wealthy have faster access to care in this country. And that's an argument for keeping the U.S. system?
The book lacks even the occasional titillating detail to liven the tedium. Does Trent Lott wear a toupee? Is Mitch McConnell as mean as he looks? Frist doesn't say.
He's too busy shining his image and setting right his place in history, if he has one. He seems particularly motivated by a sense of having been wronged on two occasions: (1) when he was suspected of insider trading for selling shares of his family's company, HCA, just before its value dropped; and (2) when he was accused of pandering to social conservatives in the right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo.
As for the stock sale, Frist—who was never charged with any crime despite an 18-month Securities and Exchange Commission investigation—can't conceal his outrage that anyone might question his integrity. He blames the media and denounces reporters for doing their jobs by pursuing the story.
"This was an issue I was sensitive to, given past criticism," Frist writes. "Since my first day in office, I had been dogged by my opponents' accusations that my investments in medical-related businesses, including those of my own family members, somehow would compromise my independence on issues relating to health care. It was a specious charge at best, and one I'd gone overboard to dispel through complete transparency and honesty. But in the heated, accusatory post-Katrina Washington atmosphere and with my heightened visibility as the Republican leader, I was not surprised that some members of the media might try to make a name for themselves by looking for some hint of scandal in my personal finances. In Washington, scandal sells."
News of the media's interest in his stock sale is brought to the senator by his press secretary, Amy Call. (Frist, by the way, credits Call with "an enormous passion for the truth," which makes her an unusual flack indeed.)
Call tells Frist she talked to a reporter who asked a good question. "[I]t seems he had some questions about why you would sell now, at this particular time, after putting up with all the critics' complaints of supposed conflict of interest all these years," she tells Frist.
"Yes, that's right, Amy," Frist replies. "Back in April, I initiated actions so the trustees of my stock could sell any final amounts of HCA stock remaining in the blind trust accounts they manage for me. Years ago when we set the trust up, the trustees were instructed to diversify me out of HCA and I want to make sure they get me all the way out as we look to the future. The Senate Ethics Committee automatically receives notice of the final sale. It's all public information."
All of what Frist quotes himself as saying may be true. But can anyone picture a human being actually saying this in conversation? His account sounds like something scripted for Harry and Louise—and rejected. Just as laughable is Frist's revisionist account of what happened with Schiavo, the brain-damaged woman whose case became the cause célèbre of the pro-life movement in 2005.
That chapter begins, "We all make mistakes in life." Ah, the gullible reader thinks, it's about time Frist admitted he's human. But then, in a tortured defense, the good doctor denies he did anything wrong by questioning Schiavo's diagnosis after watching videotapes of her for all of an hour. As he has done in the past, Frist writes that his assertion she was "not somebody in persistent vegetative state" did not amount to a medical diagnosis.
"I never made a diagnosis," he insists. "I did want an accurate diagnosis confirmed. But the media was on a roll, fed by the partisan left who saw an opening to challenge the credibility of the Senate majority leader of the opposite party. By undermining my credibility as a doctor, they thought they could destroy my credibility as Republican leader. And they threw arrows where it hurt—my profession of medicine."
Ouch! While every page of A Heart to Serve aims to reveal Frist in the best possible light, what we come away with is something he didn't mean to convey: This guy is really touchy. Unfortunately for Frist, his book succeeds only in providing new ammunition to pierce that thin skin.
"People don't usually go to war against someone who helped save their children," Frist writes.
Senator Bill Frist, M.D., served as a senator for 12 years and was the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. He has practiced medicine for twenty years and is a pioneer surgeon in heart and lung transplantation. Dr. Frist now focuses his efforts on relief work around the world.
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