Dr. Frist’s ‘Random Thoughts’

Posted July 25, 2003 at 6:32pm

Bill Frist writes like he talks.

The Senate Majority Leader speaks in bullet points, not-quite sentences, phrases, statements, a stream-of-consciousness of exclamations, pauses, stops, starts and ideas.

Nearly seven months into his tenure as Republican leader, Senators and aides have grown accustomed to Frist’s nonstop mode of action and his style of clipped sentences, rattling off idea after idea after idea — almost always from his BlackBerry, dashing them off at all hours of the day and night.

In one such e-mail sent to his financial supporters last week, the Tennessee Republican got straight to the point: “It’s Monday am. A few random thoughts: …”

Eschewing the limitations of grammar and punctuation, he then launched into a 279-word tour de force that touched on everything from his meeting with Iraqi administrator L. Paul Bremer to school choice in the District of Columbia to e-mail spam to Liberia and his propensity for making unannounced visits to Sunday services at predominantly black churches.

Aides say the missive is vintage Frist, probably banged out in the early morning hours — Frist himself isn’t sure when he tapped out the note — and encompassing a series of messages he wants to get across in short, declarative points.

Like a doctor making notes on a patient’s condition into his dictaphone, the former heart surgeon rattles off political prognostications and adds a call to arms.

On many nights, sometimes well past 11 p.m., Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) says he can hear his BlackBerry rattling and knows it’s Frist, his predecessor as chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “I hear it buzzing right by my bed,” Allen recalled.

His e-mails can appear tossed off at first glance but are deep on substance, both personal and professional.

For instance, supporters who received the e-mail from Frist last Monday morning learned a fascinating detail about him: He frequently wakes up on Sunday mornings and takes his family, without making prior arrangements, to black churches in the District or Tennessee.

On July 20, Frist paid an unannounced visit to Shiloh Baptist Church, a historic house of worship in the District’s Shaw neighborhood, where both then-President Bill Clinton and the first President George Bush had visited. “The guest pastor was Rev. George Lyons, Jr., who is from Knoxville. We had a joyful day there,” he wrote.

Asked about his visits to black churches, Frist said in a brief interview that he never asks to preach or speak and that he never goes during campaign season. For him, it’s just a way to stay in touch with a community that doesn’t normally get much attention from Republicans. “I’ve been doing that for years,” he said. “That’s it, just done it for years.”

Indeed, Shiloh officials had no idea he was coming that Sunday morning for the 10:55 a.m. service. The Rev. Alice Davis, executive minister and associate pastor, said she wasn’t even on hand. Once church officials realized Frist and his family were there, they asked if he would speak to the congregation.

Davis said he was “warmly received” and offered brief comments that didn’t get very political. “He just said he got up Sunday morning and wanted to go somewhere the gospel was being preached,” she said in an interview.

Without so much as a lawyerly transition, Frist jumps back and forth from personal anecdote to large international crisis, informing his supporters that last week’s Monday night dinner — a new Frist tradition usually on the Dole Balcony outside his office — will focus on discussion of the new HIV/AIDS initiative for Africa.

“Lamar will join us,” he writes. “We will lead a Senate delegation in late August to 4 countries in Africa … I may sneak off afterward to do my medical mission work.”

Frist and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) are leading a delegation to South Africa, Zimbabwe, Namibia and Botswana.

Frist is always a bit taken aback when others express their own surprise at his late-night and early-morning hours. Senate Republicans had grown used to the family-friendly atmosphere established by their former leader, Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), who tried to close the chamber by early evening and was a notoriously late starter in the mornings — to the point of back-and-forth jesting with early riser President Bush.

It’s become a cliche to refer to the new leader’s “surgeon’s hours,” but it is a reality. “I’d be operating at 6:30 in the morning in the real life, opening up someone’s chest,” Frist said, meaning he would be up hours beforehand prepping for the surgery.

While Lott paced the halls whistling and occasionally reading a memo, Frist is often seen shuffling along with his head down, tapping away on his BlackBerry.

Bob Stevenson, Frist’s communications director, leaves his home in Virginia between 6 and 7 a.m. every morning for the Capitol, and regardless of what time he departs, he almost always has a message awaiting him on his BlackBerry from Frist. “He likes to give you something to think about on the commute in,” Stevenson said.

Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has adjusted to the BlackBerry style of Frist, a stark contrast to his one-on-one dealings with Lott, with whom he shared a telephone hotline and who would often just storm into Daschle’s office to talk things over. Like Frist, Daschle gets up early, usually at 5:15 a.m., jogs and reads papers online, so his aides also aren’t surprised to find e-mail messages from the boss awaiting them when they get to work.

But Frist has elevated the role of the BlackBerry and established it as a frequent form of communication with other Senators. Daschle said it was “not unusual” to get a BlackBerry from Frist “any time throughout the day.”

Allen said the technology was catching on so widely that Frist was no longer alone in his compulsiveness with the BlackBerry. Looking at his own device and pointing to a staffer, Allen said: “Heck, I pester people late at night, too. Heck, I was sending stuff to the office at 10:55 last night. It’s great. It’s better than the cellphone. You have a written record.”

Frist favors writing in bullet points, laying out a few agenda items. When two senior aides were asked about Frist’s e-mail referencing his attendance at black church services and other issues, one responded, “Six points or seven? Was it six points or seven?”

The e-mail was a seven-point message.

Not all of Frist’s messages to his supporters of his leadership political action committee, Volunteer PAC, are of the informal nature. A May 28 e-mail was more polished, a standard political pitch covering the signing of the $350 billion tax deal and other recent issues.

Aides say last week’s alert was much more typically Fristian. For instance, point “1” begins: “Met with Amb Bremer (Iraq reconstruction) Saturday for 2 hours … things are going better than media depicts … everything just about up to prewar levels (which isn’t saying much because Saddam had run the country into the ground) … BUT it is clear that building self-rule will take our presence for years — not months … and we will be there for years … WE MUST BE SUCCESSFUL. We will be. Will require patience.”

He progressively picked up the pace, rattling through seven different issues in his final two points, signing off with a simple salutation, “Bill Frist,” no title included.

Asked if his surgeon’s style and frenetic pace would win over the historically slow-moving Senate, Frist was … Fristian in a brief interview: “We’ll see. I don’t know. It’s a work in … we’ll see.”