Bill Frist's sad song

Why the Senate majority leader's political career is like an old Alanis Morissette song.

By Farhad Manjoo
April 3, 2006 5:59PM (UTC)
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Bill Frist, who plans to make a big show of his independence from President Bush this week by pushing his enforcement-only immigration bill, lands on the front page of the New York Times this morning. It's a big story, complete with a nice picture of the Senate majority leader looking handsome and thoughtful. But in keeping with the apparent determination of the universe to ensure that nothing unequivocally good ever happens to Bill Frist, reporter Sheryl Gay Stolberg's piece largely points out the difficulties Frist faces in his all-but-assured bid for the White House in 2008. The description I like the best -- one that savvy McCainiacs have probably already made into T-shirts at CafePress -- comes from the nonpartisan political analyst Charlie Cook: "In a business where eloquence and rhetoric [are] important, he is a man of no talent whatsoever."

Am I the only one for whom the close examination of Frist's political career brings to mind that annoyingly catchy Alanis Morissette song "Ironic"? I'm guessing I am, but you probably know what I mean: Bill Frist is our nation's tragic figure, a man for whom everything seems to go right for a while, only to sour in a final, often funny twist of fate. He lucked into the Senate leader's seat -- only to see that the very thing that brought him there, his close ties to Bush, would cause everyone in the Senate to regard him as nothing more than a puppet. Sure, he's the Senate's most famous doctor, a credential that you would think would count for something in these days of healthcare woes. Oh but it's sad -- it turns out that when we think of Frist's expertise, we mostly remember his moments of medical misinformation, like that time he suggested tears and sweat can transmit HIV, or when, after watching a videotape of Terri Schiavo, he incorrectly diagnosed her from the Senate floor as "not somebody in persistent vegetative state."


Frist's immigration gambit is an obvious effort to stake out a position that would appeal to conservative Republican primary voters, but already the affair looks as if it might turn out badly for him in the end. His Senate colleagues aren't too pleased that he sidestepped the bill passed in the Judiciary Committee last week, a measure that would toughen border security and would also institute a guest-worker program and allow many current illegal immigrants to stay in the country. On the Sunday political shows, Frist acknowledged that he may lose once again -- despite his best efforts, the bill that eventually passes the Senate will likely contain a guest-worker program, he conceded.

So here we are once again: Leading an institution that does what you've long said is necessary -- immigration reform -- but that, in the end, goes about it in a way that you had least hoped? It's like meeting the man of your dreams ... and then meeting his beautiful wife.

Correction: Earlier, I mistakenly called Bill Frist the Senate's "only" doctor. As readers pointed out, though, I'd forgotten about Tom Coburn, the Oklahoma senator who was elected in 2004, and who is also a physician. Let us hope that unlike Frist, Coburn doesn't begin to practice his brand of medicine from the Senate floor.

Farhad Manjoo

Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.

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