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SPINNING BIO (PART 1)! David Brooks, limning Frist, shows that bio is easily spun:


FRIST PRINCIPLES: Biography is easily spun. Writers sift through decades of details, looking for ways to condemn the despised. Or they find ways to praise the approved. Consider the Weekly Standard’s David Brooks, limning the good doctor, Bill Frist.

Brooks describes the young Frist at Harvard Medical School. The stress was terrible, Brooks relates. “It was during that period that he adopted pets from animal shelters and then killed them so he could experiment on their hearts,” Brooks says. “I was going a little crazy,” Frist is quoted saying. But as spinning biographers will sometimes do, Brooks finds signs of his subject’s high character in virtually everything Frist says and does. He describes an odd event from this period:

BROOKS: He was also having some troubles with his love life…For ten years he had been dating a Nashville girl, Katie, assuming that marriage was at the end of the road. While Frist was finishing his medical training in Boston, they did get engaged, and were to return to Nashville for the ceremony. But a few weeks before the wedding he met a woman from West Texas, Karyn, and they had a dinner and a night together.

Two days before the wedding, Frist flew back to Nashville from Massachusetts General, where he was doing his internship. He called off his marriage to Katie. “Everyone listened carefully to what I said, all the lame explanations I had that were and were not the truth,” he wrote, “and they nodded and dealt with it and I went on my way.” Think of that: two days before a Belle Meade wedding. You can imagine the string of parties that would have been planned, the cascades of gifts that would have been bought. You can imagine the social uproar Frist’s decision must have caused.

Of course, you can also imagine the total heartbreak Frist’s decision must have caused poor Katie (who apparently lacked a last name). Should pols be judged on such events? In our book, no, they should not; pols should be judged on their conduct as pols. After all, a pol’s biography is easily spun. Here’s how Brooks spins Frist’s behavior:
BROOKS (continuing directly): You don’t call off a wedding to a woman you’ve known for ten years in circumstances like that unless you have a steely determination, to say the least, at the core of your being. And as Frist notes in his book, despite all the trauma, he “did not miss a minute of work at Mass General.”
Frist’s conduct doesn’t show him to be a cad. It doesn’t show that he’s weird, detached, evasive or heartless. No, when Frist left Katie with egg on her face, he showed the “steely determination at the core of his being.” Later, Brooks returns to that near-wedding scene and heaps new praise on Frist’s character:
BROOKS: As you struggle to understand Frist and his upper-class Tennessee roots, you are forced to wrestle with paradoxes…He is a member of genteel society, but he is not cowardly—or obsessed with the opinions of the parlor set, as the crack-up of his near-marriage proves. He is political, but for much of his life had no interest in anything but medicine and still defines himself as a doctor first.
What did Frist prove when he left Katie hanging? The doctor proved that he isn’t a coward! Did we mention the fact that, for pandering pundits, biography is easily spun?

Pundits are now plumping Frist to be president. Brook’s intriguing Standard profile provides a hint of what is to come. In part, your press corps selected your present prez by spinning the bios of Bush and Gore. Now, they’re trying to spin you on Frist. High comedy happens as Brooks spins some bio. Tomorrow: Who gave Brooks that letter?

LIARS FIGURE: Like all contemporary conservative pundits, David Brooks simply hates all embellishment, embroidery, exaggeration and misstatement. Unless it involves Frist or Al Gore:

BROOKS: In your experience with normal doctors, let alone superstar transplant surgeons, would you say that their life paths have bred in them a simple egalitarian ethos? Of course not. Many doctors, and especially the surgical superstars, see themselves as inhabiting a Mount Olympus of the mind. And yet Bill Frist obviously does relate to people. Like Bush, he does not alienate or cast himself as superior to normal, middle-class Americans. Frist was reelected to the Senate with a wider margin than any other candidate for statewide election in recent Tennessee history, which, given some of the senators the state has produced, is saying something.
Unfortunately, it’s “saying something” that’s false. (Or maybe it all depends on what the meaning of “recent Tennessee history” is.) In November 2000, Frist was elected to a second term with 65 percent of the vote. But back in November 1990, a Tennessee senator named Al Gore was also elected to a second term—and Gore received 70 percent of the vote. Readers, “70” is larger than “65”—unless you’re trying to buffalo readers into thinking that Frist walks on water.

The spinning here is especially comic. Frist’s 65 percent of the vote shows that he “obviously does relate to people,” Brooks says. But all through Campaign 2000, we were told that Gore—who got 70 percent of Tennessee’s Senate vote—was aloof, inhuman, wooden and strange. Pundits obsessed on Gore’s alleged inability to relate to people. But so it goes when your deeply dysfunctional “press corps” tells you the stories it very much likes—and so it goes when your pundit corps starts picking your presidents for you. Of course, the Standard has faked Gore’s bio before. More on that later this week.

The Daily update

AT LAST, A WELCOME DISTRACTION: In this morning’s New York Times, Jim Rutenberg discusses the changed news mix. Over the weekend, Rutenberg says, “[I]t became clear that for the next few days at least, news about Iraq would have to fight for time and space with news about the shuttle.” That, of course, is a vast understatement. Even with major decisions looming, Iraq was wiped from the news agenda after Columbia went down on Saturday morning. On Sunday morning, major programs dropped their planned discussions of Colin Powell’s U.N. presentation to wallow in the woods of East Texas.

In an editorial, the Washington Post describes another paradox about the reaction to Columbia. Last Friday, four U.S. soldiers died in Afghanistan, victims of a Blackhawk crash. But their deaths have been completely ignored, even as the Columbia seven are discussed wall-to-wall, and even as we stage worthless discussions about whether the space program will continue. (Hint: It will.) “[A]s we read the biographies of these brave seven,” the Post says, “replay their buoyant interviews of recent days and come to know the grief-stricken but proud surviving spouses and parents, we might spare a moment also for the four who died near Bagram, and the others most of us will never hear about.”

Those others “we will never hear about” include the coming dead in Iraq. It has been remarkable to compare the mourning for the Columbia seven to the all-encompassing lack of interest in the deaths which will soon occur in Iraq. Is war on Iraq a good idea? On that, we don’t express a view. But it has become rather clear that these upcoming deaths play no role in our current calculus. In the press, we have seen almost no attempt to estimate or discuss the impending loss of life. Recent reports about “Shock and Awe” or possible use of American nukes have produced almost no discussion. Do Americans care about Iraqi deaths? There is almost no sign that we do.

Inevitably, others will notice. In this morning’s Times, for example, Neil MacFarquhar reports reaction in the Middle East to the Columbia disaster. He quotes a Jordanian columnist who “said he hoped the disaster would push Americans to reflect about what they are doing in the Middle East every day, about the destruction and death visited by American-made munition.” There is, of course, no chance that any such reaction will occur. Around the world, people will notice this lack of concern about deaths which lie outside our family.

The human mind is deeply tribal; the human mind is wired to care about those perceived to be “one’s own.” Over the weekend, that tribalism was put on display. As a people, we can’t even seem to give a fig about the safety of our own soldiers; meanwhile, we wipe out debate about impending war to mourn seven high-profile accident victims. Such utter lack of moral seriousness may not hurt us this time around. In the long run, almost surely, it will. Tomorrow: Does Saddam Hussein really have nukes, and other lightly-limned Iraq questions.