William H. Frist

William H. “Bill” Frist represented Tennessee in the U.S. Senate from 1995 to 2007 and served as Senate Majority Leader during the last four of those years. Born on February 22, 1952, into a prominent Nashville family, Frist graduated from Montgomery Bell Academy and Princeton University, where he studied in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public Policy and International Affairs. Like his father and two older brothers, Frist became a physician, graduating from Harvard University Medical School in 1978. Frist’s father and one of his brothers founded Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), which grew into a large and profitable chain of hospitals.

During his five-year surgical residency at Massachusetts General Hospital, Frist became interested in organ transplant surgery. He then did a fellowship at Stanford University Medical Center, a leader in the transplant field. In 1986 Frist came home to Nashville to found the Transplant Center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He served as the center’s director and performed more than two hundred heart and lung transplants. In 1989, he published a book about his experiences entitled Transplant: A Heart Surgeon’s Account of the Life-and-Death Dramas of the New Medicine.

Frist demonstrated little interest in electoral politics early in his life, first voting only in 1988 at the age of thirty-six. In 1992 Tennessee governor Ned McWherter tapped Frist to lead a commission studying ways to reform the state’s increasingly expensive Medicaid program. Frist then supported McWherter’s successful push to transform Medicaid in Tennessee into a new managed-care plan called TennCare. Frist also led an effort to increase organ donation in the state. These experiences apparently opened his eyes to the importance of political involvement. He later told an interviewer that he had not realized until around 1992 how an individual could impact the political process.

Frist soon turned that realization into action, declaring himself a Republican candidate for the Tennessee U.S. Senate seat up for election in November 1994. Early in the contest, many regarded Frist’s chances as slim. He not only had scant political experience, but he also faced Democrat Jim Sasser, an eighteen-year incumbent poised to become the Senate Democratic leader. However, Frist ran an aggressive campaign, spent a great deal of money (including more than $3.5 million of his own funds), and had the good fortune to run when a Republican tide swept the nation. Frist defeated Sasser by a margin of 56 to 42 percent. As the only challenger to defeat a full-term incumbent in that year’s Senate elections, Frist landed on the cover of Time magazine.

Frist became the first practicing physician elected to the Senate since 1928. His medical training helped launch him into the national spotlight in 1998, when he rushed to treat the victims of a shooting in the U.S. Capitol. (In 2003, while driving in Florida on vacation, Frist helped rescue a family involved in a car accident.) He naturally focused much of his early legislative work on health-care issues, where his expertise gave him unique credibility. He took a leadership role in the debate over cloning, which erupted in 1997 after researchers in Scotland revealed they had cloned a sheep; Frist voted for a bill to ban human cloning. Frist consistently opposed abortion and supported efforts to combat AIDS. He frequently traveled to Africa to provide medical care to the needy there.

Frist played key roles on a range of other health-care issues. He delved deeply into the nation’s Medicare system, serving on the 1998-99 National Bipartisan Commission on the Future of Medicare. He also had great influence on the Patient Privacy Act. He advocated several efforts designed to use the private sector to help people who lacked adequate health-care insurance. Frist’s medical training made him a logical choice to serve on the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, which he did throughout his first term in the Senate.

Frist did not confine himself to medical issues. He served on a range of other Senate committees, including Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs; Budget; Foreign Relations; and Labor and Human Relations. He also worked on legislation dealing with a variety of matters. For example, he introduced the Citizen Congress Act, a bill to end many of the perks enjoyed by members of Congress. (Unsurprisingly, the bill did not pass.)

Frist published his second book, written with J. Lee Annis Jr., Tennessee Senators 1911-2001: Portraits of Leadership in a Century of Change in 1999. That same year, in what became the start of his climb up the Senate leadership ladder, Frist became deputy Republican whip. The following year he was named the official Senate liaison for the George W. Bush campaign for president. Meanwhile, he ran for reelection, eventually overwhelming Democrat Jeff Clark by the historic margin of 65 to 32 percent. President-elect Bush made Frist an advisor to his transition team. In 2001 Frist began a two-year stint as head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which raises money and otherwise seeks to help Republicans win election to the U.S. Senate.

Frist’s role at the NRSC garnered him considerable credit when Republicans took over the Senate as a result of the 2002 elections. Shortly thereafter, Trent Lott, the newly elected Senate majority leader, was forced to step aside because of remarks widely perceived as racially insensitive. Frist’s success with the NRSC, solid work ethic, impressive professional background, even temperament, and close ties to the Bush administration left him well placed to step into the post. On December 24, 2002, Frist’s Republican colleagues unanimously elected him their leader.

As it turned out, Frist experienced a rocky four years as Senate majority leader, a job considered one of the most difficult in Washington. He assumed the position as the least-experienced senator ever to do so, and he lacked the longstanding personal relationships with other senators that can facilitate the job. Some saw his leadership style as too reserved and detached. His strong support from the Bush White House, which had helped him land the job, ultimately may have hurt him as the president became increasingly unpopular and as observers questioned Frist’s independence. Frist also made some damaging political missteps.

One of Frist’s most controversial moves involved the Senate’s role to confirm federal judges. Frustrated by Democratic-led filibusters against some of President Bush’s judicial nominees, Frist threatened to employ a seldom-used parliamentary procedure to end filibusters by a simple majority vote—which he could muster with his fairly narrow majority in the Senate—rather than the usual three-fifths vote. This tactic became known as the “nuclear option” because it was seen as a measure of last resort that could have devastating consequences. Democrats denounced Frist’s plan as an abuse of power and a violation of Senate traditions. A bipartisan compromise helped avoid a showdown, but Frist’s reputation for calm moderation was marred.

Another difficult event for Frist was the case of Terri Schiavo, a Florida woman diagnosed as being in persistent vegetative state. Her husband’s decision to remove her feeding tube sparked a family legal battle that ultimately evolved into a national debate over right-to-life and related issues. Frist became enmeshed in the affair when, after viewing a videotape of Schiavo, he declared that she was “not somebody in persistent vegetative state.” Some decried Frist’s comment as politically motivated and medically inappropriate given that he was not a neurologist and had not examined the patient in person. Schiavo died two weeks later, and her autopsy revealed massive, irreversible brain damage.

Whatever his miscalculations, Frist did enjoy some victories. He was instrumental in crafting and passing the Medicare prescription-drug benefit, an enormous and important new program. He secured confirmation for two conservative nominees, John Roberts and Samuel Alito, to the U.S. Supreme Court. He also supported government-funded embryonic stem cell research, breaking from President Bush on the issue. During his second term, Frist served on the Budget; Finance; Foreign Relations; Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions; and Rules and Administration committees. In 2003 he published When Every Moment Counts: What You Need to Know About Bioterrorism from the Senate’s Only Doctor.

Frist embraced the concept of the “citizen legislator” and honored his longstanding pledge not to seek reelection in 2006. Ever since rising to the Senate’s top post, many had viewed him as a potential contender for the 2008 Republican nomination for president. Frist did not deny an interest and took many actions (including prodigious fundraising and campaigning for Republican candidates around the nation) that suggested a run for the presidency was likely. Indeed, critics charged that much of his behavior as leader was driven by his presidential ambition. However, his decidedly mixed record as majority leader, lackluster performance in early polls, and questions about his personal finances tarnished his prospects. In late 2006 Frist announced that he would not seek the presidency in 2008 and would instead take a sabbatical from public life. Frist has not ruled out seeking political office in the future, and some speculate that he might run for governor of Tennessee in 2010.

Frist and his wife Karyn live in Nashville and have three grown sons.

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  • Article Title William H. Frist
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  • Website Name Tennessee Encyclopedia
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  • Access Date June 17, 2024
  • Publisher Tennessee Historical Society
  • Original Published Date
  • Date of Last Update March 1, 2018