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SPINNING BIO (PART 2)! Humble Bill Frist hates publicity. And how do we know? Bill Frist says:


FRIST ON THE MOUNT: David Brooks was spinning Frist hard, eager to make him a saint—then a president (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/3/03). This led to an amusing choice of words:

BROOKS: As you struggle to understand Frist and his upper-class Tennessee roots, you are forced to wrestle with paradoxes. He does have an aristocratic background, yet right now that background and the soft-spoken caution it implies seem more in tune with the middle-class public than the more radical aspirations of the Gingrich revolutionaries. He is relentlessly ambitious, yet he is also a sincere do-gooder. He is a meritocratic striver, yet he also has a service mentality that transcends narrow self-interest. He has an ego, but he also performs unpublicized acts of charity.
Frist performs “unpublicized acts of charity,” Brooks said. It was all part of being a “sincere do-gooder” who has such a “service mentality.”

What is Frist like? We don’t have a clue. Here at THE HOWLER, we have long counseled against asking such questions when judging our big politicians. But as we read Brooks’ Standard profile, we couldn’t help chuckling at that key word: unpublicized. In fact, it’s hard to know when Frist finds time for unpublicized acts when his days seem so full of the other variety. Has there ever been a major pol more eager to pimp his good deeds to the press? Frist is relentlessly offering irrelevant chatter about his godlike work as a surgeon (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/27/03). And he often finds ways to tell the public about his life-saving acts. Recently, when he stumbled upon a car wreck in Florida, Frist gave first aid, then called for the press. Meanwhile, here is the Chicago Tribune’s Jeff Zeleny, describing Frist in October 01 when those first anthrax letters hit Congress:

ZELENY (12/22/02): When anthrax-laced letters arrived on Capitol Hill last year, Frist also hustled to the scene and then quickly to a bank of television cameras. At the time, Senate employees of both parties privately joked that the Tennessee senator was never far from the spotlight.
Does Frist engage in “unpublicized” work? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But don’t worry. In coming years, Frist’s publicity machine will say that he does—and pundits like Brooks will recite it.

Early on in his Standard profile, Brooks offers a good example of the way Frist avoids all publicity. Brooks cues violins as he describes Frist’s late father, a highly successful, self-made man. According to Brooks, Frist Senior became doctor to Tennessee’s governors and elite, “while remaining a traveling doctor for the rural poor.” And in 1989, just before his death, Frist Senior “wrote a letter to his great-grandchildren summarizing his philosophy of life.” To Brooks, the letter presents “a straightforward, simple creed that captures [a] character-building ethos.” So he quotes the epistle at length:

BROOKS (quoting Frist Senior): “I believe that religion is so very important. I was raised in the Presbyterian church in Meridian, Mississippi, and I never missed a Sunday from when I was three to when I was eighteen…I say something nice to people when they deserve it. When they don’t deserve it, I say something nice about other people, so they know how to act and they always smile…Tell your children how great they are. Encourage them in everything they do. I never punished my children, never ever raised my voice with them. If they know you expect them to do right, they will do right…I loved being a doctor because it meant helping people, being with patients every minute. All my sons were doctors. It’s a great thing to be a doctor…I believe the free enterprise system can do a better job at most things than the government can. People should learn to be self-reliant; when they are self-reliant, they will have self-respect. I believe good people beget good people…I believe life is made up of peaks and valleys. But the thing to remember is that the curve is always going up…Finally, it is so terribly important in life to stay humble.”
It’s terribly important to stay humble, we’re told—and Frist, performing “unpublicized acts,” is offered as an example. But how did Brooks obtain the senior Frist’s letter? Of course! He got it from Bill Frist himself! Here is the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish, who seems to be the first major scribe to mention the senior Frist’s letter:
KRANISH (10/27/02): As Frist concludes a series of interviews for this article, he seems to wonder whether he has succeeded in fully explaining himself. So he ducks into his Senate office and returns with an extraordinary document. It is a copy of a letter that his father wrote just before his 1998 death; there is also a eulogy of his father. The eulogy tells proudly how the senior Frist was once engaged to a woman, but then “engagements were broken and plans were abandoned” when he met another woman whom he would eventually marry.
It was Frist himself who passed out the letter—the letter about “staying humble!” But don’t worry. As the effort to spin Frist continues, scribes like Brooks will know how to play it. The letter will show you how humble Frist is—how much he abhors all publicity.

Sadly, publicity follows Frist around, although he tries hard to avoid it. In December 1997, Richard Powelson of the Knoxville News Sentinel profiled the senator’s endless good deeds. Despite Frist’s hatred of such talk, Powelson had mucho information:

POWELSON: There is a growing list of people and groups glad that the Senate has a physician and that he has been nearby, usually with a medical kit, when they needed him.

Just three weeks ago, while visiting Johnson City, Tenn., he saw a man with extreme shortness of breath and diagnosed him as having congestive heart failure. He got the man to the nearby veterans hospital by ambulance, where treatment stabilized his health.

Last September in the heat outside the Capitol, Frist posed for a photograph with a senior citizens group. An elderly woman fainted. Frist was able to revive her and get her into the shade to cool off.

In the past spring, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., began gasping for breath during a committee hearing. An aide ran upstairs to Frist's office, and he hurried back. Frist reassured her that her vital signs were good, that she was not facing a life-threatening situation, and helped her to relax…

On a commercial flight a year ago, a man lost consciousness and flight attendants sought any doctor on the plane. Frist came forward, found a new prescription in the man's pocket and was able to call the man's physician, whom Frist knew, in California. The passenger was having a medicine reaction and was revived.

Another incident last year occurred while Frist was eating dinner with his wife Karyn in a California restaurant after the Republican National Convention. A diner lost consciousness after choking on food. A restaurant employee was unsuccessful in helping by the Heimlich maneuver. Frist put his fingers into her esophagus to dislodge the food and was able to restore her breathing.

In late 1995, a Cleveland, Tenn., man walking to Frist’s Washington office had a heart attack. A Senate staffer happened by and alerted Frist of the ill man just down the hall. Frist and an emergency medical team were able to get his heart back into a regular beat and revive him. He is still alive.

All right! All right! Bill Frist is a saint! But somehow, reporters seem to get endless info about Frist’s “unpublicized” actions.

One example is a classic. In late 1997, the selfless senator made his first “unpublicized” trip to do medical work in Africa. And somehow, despite the remote setting and despite Frist’s humility, the AP had a photographer present, and AP reporter Karin Davies got the details of Doc’s selfless work. Frist “performed surgery by flashlight on a man whose scrotum was swollen to the size of a melon,” she marveled. Indeed, before the humble Frist “slipped beneath a mosquito net for a sweaty night of sleep,” he was even forced to hear “hopeful suggestions that he was ‘a second George Marshall.’” How he must have tossed and turned after hearing such unwelcome words!

How humble is Frist? He’s not unlike Christ—if you’re listening to Frist’s cued biographers. In the second paragraph of his Standard profile, Brooks relates stories from three Frist admirers. Somehow, the scribe managed to track down a Tennessee trio who had been floored by the sanctified sawbones:

BROOKS: Aware that Bill Frist spent some summers on Nantucket, a school principal wrote him a letter asking what he should see on his upcoming visit. Senator Frist wrote back a 40-page letter describing the history and ecology of the island, and the sights that should not be missed. A weary mom was trying to lug some papers on an airplane. Frist noticed her plight and not only carried them on for her, he waited while the plane was unloading so he could carry them off for her as well. On one memorable day during a tour of Israel, Senator Frist stood on the spot where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount and read the sermon to the tour group. He electrified them with his simple faith and devotion.
Did David Brooks find these people in passing? Or was he referred to these people by Frist’s staff? His article provides no way of knowing. But would any pol except Bill Frist traffic in tales like that last jaw-dropper—a tale in which the humble Frist is compared to Jesus himself? (On the Mount!) You’d really have to be a kook to spread a story like that around—but it fits right into the standard Frist bio. (By the way, what other solon would even dream of reciting the Sermon to tourists?) But then, weirdo tales pop up with Frist all the time—although scribes like Brooks know not to notice. For example, who writes forty-page letters to total strangers about sights you just simply miss on Nantucket? Nice guys write forty-page letters to strangers, Brooks has agreed to pretend.

Should Frist be judged on his personal bio? Should Frist be judged on his private character? At THE HOWLER, we think major pols should be judged on their policies. But Brooks (and others) are pushing Frist hard—and biography is easily spun. How did Bill Frist become so humble? Tomorrow: Frist in his class.

BAD STAFF WORK: Some questioned our statement about Frist’s victory margin in his senate re-election (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/3/03). Gore was re-elected with 70 percent of the vote, while Frist got 65 percent, we noted. But Frist might have won by “a wider margin” than Gore, some said; he could have won by a wider margin if his opponents had scattered the vote. Sorry. Frist won in 2000, 65-32; Gore won his race by 70-30. Luckily, though, one of our readers directed us to the apparent source of Brooks’ strained claim. Although Frist himself has always stayed humble, this is the paragraph which opens the bio at his official Senate site:

FRIST WEBSITE: First elected to the U.S. Senate on November 8, 1994, Frist was the only challenger to defeat a full-term incumbent in 1994 and the first practicing physician elected to the Senate since 1928. A fourth generation Tennessean whose great, great grandfather was one of Chattanooga’s 53 original settlers, Frist was the 54th U.S. Senator from Tennessee and the 24th to fill the seat once held by Andrew Jackson. On November 7, 2000, Bill Frist was elected to a second term in the United States Senate by the largest margin ever received by a candidate for statewide election in the history of Tennessee.
This statement is more grandiose than Brooks’, since Brooks only said that Frist had the largest margin in recent history. What could Frist mean by this claim? Presumably, he means that his total-vote margin was larger than Gore’s, since more people voted in the year 2000. It’s strange to think that so humble a man would play such “Clintonesque” tricks with the truth. No doubt, this sentence was penned by a well-meaning aide, and Frist himself—off electrifying his constituents—hasn’t yet stumbled upon it.

The Daily update

THE FRUITS OF CARLSON’S COHORT: Does anyone any longer doubt that George Bush is a president like no other? The Washington Post doesn’t pull many punches in this morning’s editorial, “Stealth Tax Reform.” Remember, the Post has generally supported Bush’s approach to Iraq:

WASHINGTON POST: Imagine that President Bush had a plan to dramatically reshape the federal tax system, eliminating taxes on investment income for most taxpayers, making the tax structure less progressive and providing a boon to the wealthiest Americans. You might think he would mention it during his State of the Union address. You might think he would call it by its name: radical tax reform.

It turns out that Mr. Bush has such an audacious plan, but he has left it to his Treasury Department and to his 2004 budget proposal, which was released yesterday, to spell it all out. It’s being wheeled into town inside a Trojan horse of private savings accounts. That doesn’t make it any less radical. Indeed, if enacted, the plan could have effects far greater than the president’s related move to eliminate dividend taxes. It would create new savings accounts that would allow almost anyone who pays slight attention to tax planning to avoid paying taxes on investment income: gains from stocks, interest on savings and dividends.

What new proposals are found in the budget, undiscussed by Bush? The Post editorial goes on to say, and Jonathan Weisman offers more detail.

We’ll wait to offer further comment. But isn’t it perfectly clear by now that Candidate Bush ran a stealth campaign, withholding his actual plans and beliefs from the country (as he seems to withhold them still)? Among other howlers, Candidate Bush insisted that there was an extra trillion dollars built into his budget—that his tax cuts could be enacted without any threat to a balanced budget. Those claims were patently bogus then, but the press corps was busy punishing Clinton’s heir because the president had received those ten blow jobs, and they made little effort to note that Bush was making mincemeat of the facts.

Why did the press corps behave as it did? In real time, Margaret Carlson tried to explain it (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 1/3/03). As you limn Bush’s latest, unannounced proposals, remember Carlson’s astounding remarks. She described a pundit corps that was deeply dysfunctional—a corps engaged in the kind of malfeasance for which other professionals get sued, or charged with crimes. The Post speaks today—but quite late.