CBP: Tell me, what most struck you about Bill Frist? Did you actually talk to him as well?
Charles: I never spoke with him. David Mansfield and David Akeman have recently written books on George Bush. I never spoke with him, but I interviewed a bunch of his friends, so we sort of took that as a model. He’s a little busy running the Senate. I did speak with Franklin Graham, I spoke with Greg Thompson who’s a senator. He’s a neat guy.
CBP: He seems like it.
Charles: He’s fantastic. I spoke with Lloyd Ogilvie who was the former Senate chaplain who is a magnificent human being. I don’t know; just a bunch of his close friends.
This is what I took away from the whole thing: Bill Frist is a guy who grew up wanting to be a doctor because of his dad. He idolized his father. He comes up through this really neat school in Nashville, chooses Princeton rather that Vandenberg, which sort of shocked his family a little bit. Took state health care policy, oddly enough, and also took pre-med classes; was selected at Harvard, goes to Harvard Medical School, honors; is hand-picked by Mass General following Harvard Medical School. Mass General is the most sought after general residency surgical internship in the country. He’s one in twelve. It’s a grueling five year residency program; he’s one of the best. Then he’s hand-picked by Norm Shumway who’s the father of transplantation to come out to Stanford and learn how to transplant hearts. He goes out there and Shumway, who really, I think, taught him how to be a great doctor. He learned to transplant hearts. So on the one hand, Shumway taught him how to be a great doctor, on the other hand, his father taught him how to be a great man in the midst of being a great doctor. And Bill Frist talks about both those things.
He has offers from all over the country, great offers. He decides to come back to Vanderbilt to Nashville. Not to work in a transplant program, but to create the transplant program. He becomes one of the best transplant surgeons in the country; probably one of the top two or three. People come from all over the world to see him. He spends about eight years building that program, does over 150 transplants, which, if you think about the process of taking a heart out of a human being and putting in another, that is a whole other conversation itself. And then because he’s tired of losing patients because he’s seeing good people die because organs aren’t available, he’s going around the country trying to educate folks, and Howard Baker, you know, Regan’s former chief-of-staff, convinces him to run for the Senate. He says, “Okay.”
So at the age of 42, he takes a leave of absence from Vanderbilt, launches a campaign, runs against an 18-year incumbent who’s “unbeatable”, who’s slated to become majority leader if there’s a Republican elected president, defeats him in a landslide by 14 points, and just like Mr. Smith goes to Washington with Jimmy Stewart, he goes up there and he’s ranked dead last in seniority. I mean, literally, when they dole out the desks, he’s given the last desk, which is ironic given his current position. He kind of works behind the scenes, he gets to know George Bush. The Republicans come to him and say, “Will you lead the caucus?” The election of 2000 when the Republicans took over the house and the senate was credited to Bill Frist. Then, given the Trent Lott debacle, the President makes a phone call and says, “You might want to look at this guy.” The Republican caucus looks at him; Senator Santorum and Nicholas who had thrown their names in the hat to become Majority leader took their names out. Bill Frist says, “I need to talk to my wife about it.” They go home, they literally get on their knees at their church. The church surrounds them, he says, “Okay, I’ll stand for a vote.” It’s unanimous, and he starts leading the Senate.
So holy smokes, he blows me away! What are the odds of that? And to his credit, he hasn’t sought that position. I think he leads – I think he has a clear idea of what he wants to do and how he wants to do it. I think he’s ethically driven, and morally driven by a plumb line. And yet, he has friends on both sides of the aisle, and despite his pro-life stance and despite where he might be politically, he has friends – people that genuinely call him friend. And if you read the book, Bernard Lafayette is one of them. He was with Martin Luther King the day he was shot, and he is a staunch civil rights supporter or advocate – he calls him a friend. I’m so amazed at how he inspires friendship of people that don’t necessarily fall on his side of the aisle.
CBP: You mention that he is for embryonic stem cell research. So how does he reconcile that with his Christianity?
Charles: That’s a good question. There’s actually, in his own words, a section on that particular topic in the book. It’s about a page and a half where he answers that very question. The science of it I don’t quite understand, but here’s what I know about Bill Frist and what I think forms his response – or answer to that question. I would argue that he’s extremely pro-life; he would argue that as well. He sees value in medical research and how it might fight disease in the future. So given – I don’t understand all the arguments – given existing lines whatever you want to call it, he believes in funding some types of stem cell research.
CBP: Did it seem to be in line with what the president was for – like you said, existing lines?
Charles: I think so. I think the thing that informs it is because he spent so much time transplanting hearts, because transplantation is technically just plumbing. The hard part comes when you fight infection afterwards or rejection, because putting a heart in somebody is, according to him, not difficult. It is, but to him it’s not. The hard part is to be proactive in fighting the infection that’s coming. The research that’s gone into that is huge. When the anthrax attacks broke out in the Capitol and everybody was passed out Cipro which is an antibiotic, he’d been using Cipro to fight infections in transplant patients for ten years prior to that. He knew all about it. So he had seen medical research in advance of problems and how that would affect the ability to serve people. As a scientist he reconciles it. I think he’ll stand before God one day and say, “Here’s what I did with what you gave me.”
CBP: What about his bill about The Federal Marriage Amendment?
Charles: That’s going to be a tough one, because that right now is going to be the hot topic of the day. He saw in his own family, his mom and dad love each other. And he talks about that in his book Transplant, which is his autobiography which he wrote at the age of 42 or 43, talking about the transplant program. I think that he believes pretty strongly about the whole covenant before God thing.
CBP: You also mention that he promised he would serve for two terms and then go back to his medical profession, but that his friends are trying to persuade him –
Charles: He’s in a tough spot. He won’t run again for Senate. He’d never signed a term limits pledge, but he won’t go back on his word. I don’t think he’ll move off the ladder, I think he’ll move up it. I think he’ll take an appointment or – and I think the Republicans – there’s already talk that he’ll run for President in ’08. But if you were to ask him that question, I think he’d say – and I’m speaking for him, and maybe that’s wrong, but – he would say that that’s so far out there and that’s a function of so many factors that – I don’t know. He’s not one to seek the spotlight like that.
CBP: So it doesn’t seem as though he has political ambitions, more like a servant attitude towards the legislature, is that fair?
Charles: There are two types of political ambitions that I learned in writing this book. There are political ambitions that are self-centered where you want the power and prestige that comes along with the position; there’s the political ambition that says, “I can do this good with this position.” I think Bill Frist is in that camp. And the idea of a citizen legislator is real important to him. I think he’s here to perform a task to do a job, and then go back home and live under the laws he helped to enact in the first place. He didn’t seek the position of a majority leader, but he took it. And folks will accuse him of being somehow power hungry or an opportunist, or whatever, but he was offered by the caucus, never sought it, the vote was unanimous. So what is he going to do? Tell them no?
I think the same thing is going to happen in ’08.
CBP: I’ll quote you on that one when we get there.