Doctor Without Candor

Frist’s Memoir Skips the Fray

Posted November 2, 2009 at 3:02pm

Most political memoirs are stale rehashes of talking points recycled from a politician’s days in office — Richard Nixon’s explanations of Watergate, for instance, or Bill Clinton’s refusal to honestly address the controversies surrounding Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones and Whitewater in “My Life.— In fact, candor in a political figure is what really has shock value.

In his latest work, “A Heart to Serve: The Passion to Bring Health, Hope, and Healing,— former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) had a perfect opportunity to address many of the issues and controversies from his tenure as the top Republican in the Senate during the administration of George W. Bush. After all, he doesn’t have much to lose. He writes with certainty toward the end of his book that he is “out of politics and public office.—

Candor and frankness, however, are nowhere to be found in Frist’s latest literary release. From the first pages of “A Heart to Serve,— it’s clear that Frist is still very much living in a politician’s world. He has a reputation to defend and an agenda to advance, rather than a compelling and honest story to tell.

Frist offers a brief portrait of a charmed childhood in Tennessee. His father was a prominent self-made Nashville doctor while his mother was a loving homemaker. Frist nurtured an early interest in politics, interning for Tennessee Rep. Joe Evins (D) and majoring in government at Princeton University. But he ultimately followed in his father’s footsteps, pursuing a medical degree at Harvard University and specializing in surgery.

His recap of his distinguished career in medicine is the most compelling part of his autobiography. His nuanced critique of systems such as England’s National Health Service and America’s Veterans Health Administration is built on his firsthand observation of working under both systems — a welcome change from typical cable news sophistry. And his experience in building a world-class transplant center at Vanderbilt University is a professional accomplishment worthy of retelling. During his time as a surgeon, he even operated successfully on a younger Gen. David Petraeus, who was injured in a live-fire training exercise.

But in describing his political career, Frist offers a revisionist fairy tale of his leadership during the divisive Bush years. Fashioning himself as a citizen legislator rather than a professional politician, Frist was initially swept into office during the Republican takeover of Congress in 1994. He rose quickly through the party ranks, winning the Majority Leader post in the wake of Sen. Trent Lott’s (R-Miss.) unfortunate comments about race in 2002.

In discussing his tenure at the helm of the Republican caucus, he makes no mention of his roughshod treatment of his Democratic counterpart, Tom Daschle, and his surprising breach of decorum in campaigning against Daschle in South Dakota, the Democrat’s home state. Nor does he even mention his unprecedented threat to circumvent Democratic filibusters in order to confirm Bush administration judicial nominees with the “nuclear option— maneuver.

In writing about his controversial role in the Terri Schiavo case (in which her husband and her family waged a legal battle over whether she was brain dead and whether to withdraw life support), Frist begins by writing, “We all make mistakes in life,— before launching into a full-throated, unapologetic defense of Congressional interference in a private family affair. And in discussing his favorite accomplishment, Medicare Part D, he glosses over the questionable legislative tactics that he and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) used to strong-arm the bill’s passage.

In short, the book does nothing to dispel the common perception that Frist ran the Senate like a partisan bully — one who broke decorum and provoked needless partisan gamesmanship. In fact, this memoir makes little headway in explaining how a mere “citizen legislator— from Tennessee turned the typically genteel Senate into ground zero for political bloodletting during the Bush years. His book doesn’t even mention some of the ruthlessness that characterized Frist’s tenure as Majority Leader.

Frist is a compelling and interesting figure who presided over the Senate during a crucial period in American history after a distinguished and honorable career as a surgeon. It’s certainly not because of a lack of interesting material that Frist’s book doesn’t rise above the typical political mire — it simply doesn’t show enough of the mature reflection of a candid statesman.