Doctor, Senator ... President Bill Frist?

May 1, 2005

Are you ready to see a physician in the Oval Office?

I was watching Bill Frist, MD, trying to romance New Hampshire Republicans at a Lincoln-Reagan Republican Day dinner recently. For a man who wants to be president, it was an embarrassing performance.

Frist, who is from Tennessee, tried to persuade his New England audience that he was one of them. He told them he completed his residency in Boston, accompanied by his wife Karyn. "Many of our early getaways were in New Hampshire," Frist recalled. "Many pleasurable memories, but we won't go into the details."

The audience was silent. Maybe just stunned.

Undeterred, Frist then reveled in last year's World Series victory by the Boston Red Sox. "Yeah!!" he bellowed. Memories of Howard Dean's scream came to mind.

The Yankee Republicans were kind but underwhelmed.

Lucky for the only physician ever to serve as majority leader of the U.S. Senate, his appearance was broadcast only on C-SPAN's thinly watched "Road to the White House 2008."

"He's like your typical doctor," wrote one blogger who also watched Frist. "You go into the office, and it's all business, not much passion. He's not a salesman."

But selling he is. Right now: the president's legislative package in Congress. And if things go well, maybe himself as the next president of the United States.

Frist is highly respected among physicians, politicos, and the media. "He is one of the brightest figures on the national scene," says Charlie Cook, an NBC commentator and author of an insider's political newsletter. But, Cook adds, when Frist gives a speech, "it's not uncommon to hear snoring in the room." Ouch.

But don't give up on Frist. He's demonstrated an amazing ability to mix politics and medicine, all the while advancing his career.

Frist's father practiced medicine for 55 years and treated six Tennessee governors. He also created HCA, one of the country's largest hospital companies. Frist was educated at Princeton, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General, and Stanford. He is worth as much as $42 million, according to a 2003 disclosure.

He could have lived a life of leisure. But Frist jumped into the practice of medicine, becoming a successful and admired heart and lung transplant surgeon in Tennessee.

In 1994, he showed that he has skills beyond the OR, challenging a popular Democratic incumbent senator and winning 56 percent of the vote. Pouring almost $4 million of his own money into the race, Frist pledged that if elected he would be a true citizen-legislator and serve only two terms.

Just like George W. Bush, who also entered elective office in 1994 (as Texas governor), Frist's rise to power has been rapid. To build his early career Bush leveraged his family name, connections, and the money they could procure. It can be argued that Frist did the same. The senator's family money has always been a target of criticism from Demo-crats, who say it makes it impossible for him to understand the tribulations of the poor and middle class.

Frist has been a loyal Republican on many issues important to the White House, like tax cuts and the Terri Schiavo life support case, which help him with core GOP voters. Indeed, since getting his leadership post in December 2002, Frist has been the White House's most prominent advocate in the Senate. But he has tackled some controversial healthcare issues that could play well with Democrats and independents, like the expansion of AIDS Africa funding and the elimination of the disparities in healthcare.


So are Americans ready for a doctor in the Oval Office? That remains to be seen, but I see no reason why not.

Here's a more intriguing question: are physicians ready for a doctor in the Oval Office?

They should be.

Two years ago, when Howard Dean began his presidential campaign I encouraged physicians to support his candidacy -- whether they backed his policies or not. Over the next decade, dozens of monumental issues affecting healthcare, your patients, and your practice will be decided at the federal level. Having a physician in the Oval Office, with many more docs in Congress and state legislatures, would go a long way toward ensuring that healthcare does not get any worse, and might just get better.

Would a physician of any political stripe in the White House would be good for doctors? E-mail me at editor@physicianspractice.com.

 The views expressed in this space are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect the views of Physicians Practice.

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Physicians Practice.