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In the months leading up to January 20, 2001, the winds of "compassionate conservatism" swept across the country bringing in a Republican president and a Republican majority in both the House and the Senate. Five months later-May 24, 2001-after reaching a late night deal with Senator Tom Daschle and other top Democrats, Republican Jim Jeffords left the Republican Party to declare himself an Independent and caucus with the Democrats. The ripple effects were many-not the least of which occurred when Trent Lott passed the gavel to Tom Daschle (the South Dakota senator representing 530,000 voters) and work in the House and Senate came to a screeching halt.
For eighteen months, the Democratically controlled Senate, operating out of a one-vote majority, made every attempt to stall the Bush-led Republican agenda. In the few times when the Democrats were unable to block a Republican initiative, Daschle spoke with disdain and frequently of the "partisan politics" that had come to dominate life in Washington, D.C. In contrast, Daschle himself became known as a wolfish partisan "whose strong opinions were only partially disguised by a lamb's demeanor."
Having lost the majority, and control, following Jim Jeffords's decision-some might say defection-President Bush looked ahead to the November 2002 elections. In a strategic move to win back both, he asked a relatively unknown, first-term senator from Tennessee, Bill Frist, the son of a local country doctor and a gifted surgeon himself, to lead the GOP's Senate Campaign Committee, whose job it was, and is, to elect Republicans to office. Frist went to work, and on election night, November 2002, he quietly succeeded, and a shocked Daschle handed the gavel back to Trent Lott. Senator Lott promised the president and the American people that he'd immediately get to work on the Republican agenda.
Then came the one-hundredth birthday party for Senator Strom Thurmond.
The night was significant for several reasons. Strom Thurmond was one of the more notable figures in recorded American history. He had been a teacher, an athletic coach, and a superintendent of education. He studied law under his father, Judge J. William Thurmond, and became a city attorney, county attorney, state senator, and, eventually, a circuit court judge. Though exempt from serving in the military, Strom-who had already been an army reservist and a commissioned second lieutenant by the age of twenty-one-volunteered for active duty on the day the United States entered World War II. As a member of the eighty-second Airborne, he parachuted behind enemy lines on D-Day and helped secure the foothold for the Allies to liberate the European continent.
For distinguished service, Senator Thurmond was awarded five battle stars and eighteen other decorations, including the Legion of Merit with oak leaf cluster, the Purple Heart, the Bronze Star for Valor, the Belgian Order of the Crown and the French Cross of War.
After the war, Strom returned home to South Carolina. He was elected governor in 1946 and then ran as a Dixiecrat (a segregationist platform he later renounced) against Harry Truman for president of the United States. He lost, but was determined to serve America, so he ran for Senate in 1954 and became the only candidate elected to Congress by a write-in vote in American history. At the time of his birthday celebration, he had been reelected eight times since.
As a young man, he knew people who had seen Andrew Jackson, and he campaigned for the votes of men who fought in the Civil War. He and Herbert Hoover won their first elective office in the same year-1928. He served with about one-fifth of the nearly two thousand people who have been members of the Senate since 1789. And at the time of his birthday, he was nearly one-half the age of the United States Constitution itself. As a result of his long-standing service, it had been said that almost 70 percent of South Carolinians had met Strom Thurmond face to face.
As the celebration began, several senators came forth to offer their praise and congratulations. Obviously, much of his life had been praiseworthy, and admirers didn't have to look too far into his past to pay him a compliment.
When it came time for the newly returned Senate Majority Leader Lott to make his toast, he did: "When Strom Thurmond ran for president, we voted for him. We're proud of it. And if the rest of the country had followed our lead, we wouldn't have had all these problems over all these years, either." And, when he'd finished, most people wished the man from the Magnolia State had never spoken.
Just what was Thurmond's lead? According to a 1948 speech, Thurmond said, "There's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and admit the n-race into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches." While history will record Strom's heroic contribution to America, it will also record the statement above: a paradox, and one the Republican Party of George W. Bush wants no part of. The events that unfurled over the next several days are best described as an "oil-in-water" reaction.
Lott's words were neither compassionate nor conservative. As soon as the words left his mouth, the president's compassionate agenda could be heard crashing upon the rocks, and the critics could be heard trampling over one another en route to the microphone.
But the Democrats had to be careful not to seem too eager, for they, too, were wrought with the paradoxes of politics. For among their ranks was one with a less-than-perfect race record. Senator Robert Byrd was once a member of the Ku Klux Klan, opposed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and used the term "white n-rs" in a Fox News Sunday interview. In 1945, Byrd wrote to Mississippi's virulent segregationist Senator Theodore Bilbo that he would never serve in an integrated army. "Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds." Confronted with the letter in 1999, Byrd said he didn't recall writing it. He said, "I will not dispute the quote, though I consider it deplorable." In 1946, at the age of twenty-nine, Byrd wrote to Imperial Wizard Green of the KKK: "The Klan is needed today as never before and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia." He didn't dispute this letter either.
The Republican senators and President Bush thanked Senator Lott for his distinguished service but told him that his comments were inappropriate, did not represent the sentiments they wished to express, and asked him to step down. Eight days later-December 20, 2002-he did.
The Republicans then met in a closed-door meeting to nominate one of the remaining ninety-nine members to take Lott's place. Someone who could lead alongside the president. Someone considered a moderate in the vein of George W with no ties to anything even remotely racist-some might even say, "difficult to pigeonhole," "an outsider," and "not a lifetime politician." While Nickles and Santorum threw their names in the hat-both deserving, able, and worthy senators-the president and the Republican Caucus had their eyes on another. A man who knew a good bit about veins. Before anyone left the meeting, Bush made a phone call and pointed him out.
Everyone knew he was speaking of the doctor-Bill Frist. Those who had thrown their names in the hat immediately withdrew them and stood faithfully alongside. Frist, who in fact had not sought the position of majority leader, was asked by the party if he would accept it. After counseling with Bob Dole and Howard Baker, he realized, that despite his own desires, he possessed an obligation to the body, to the institution, to the country. Despite the criticisms that he was an opportunist, he asked the members of his caucus for an evening to talk with his wife and his sons and pray about it.
As he had before on the evenings of his two previous elections, Frist and his wife, Karyn, drove to Two Rivers Baptist for a worship service. Midway through the service, the doctor, lost in his thoughts, thumbed through his Bible to an underlined passage he knew well. He could recall it from memory, but in times like this, he felt the need to reread it: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps." Late in the service, the pastor publicly recognized the couple, called them forward and explained the gravity of the moment and their pressing need for strength, encouragement, and maybe most importantly, wisdom. The couple walked forward and knelt at the altar as the pastor told the congregation that anyone who wished could come forward as well and gather around the couple while he prayed. While his words were still echoing off the balcony, the pews emptied and the congregation, kneeling and standing, filled the altar around the doctor and his wife. Attendees would later remember that time as a powerful and poignant moment. The following day, Frist agreed to stand for a vote.
The count was unanimous.
In January of 2003, amidst great controversy and cries of racism and insensitivity, Senator William H. Frist, M.D., a mere second-term senator, assumed the role of majority leader of the Senate for the 108th Congress of the United States. Having treated tens of thousands of patients, he understood well the needs of the sick and dying and what it takes to bring health, wholeness, and healing.
Late in the afternoon on the day of his election to majority leader, longtime friend Dr. Karl VanDevender asked Bill, "How's it feel?"
Without hesitation, Bill responded, "Humbling."
Karl says, "That's where his faith has entered in. His humility impressed me then and now. Even now that he's in this position, Billy is trying to make decisions that impact this country not as a Republican or a Democrat, but as a man trying to do what is right. He has a servant's heart and when, like him, you reach the top of the mountain, the only place to look for guidance is up. He's got nowhere else to look but up and that's where he's looking."
If Bill Frist, or "Fristy" as President Bush likes to call him, is to help heal the rift that divides America, then it will test every skill the good doctor ever learned. Many agree that while he's up to the task, he's got his work cut out for him. But to those who doubt, a word of caution: Bill Frist accomplished more by the age of forty than most do in a lifetime, lives by an uncompromising ethical code fueled by a quiet faith that is long on action and short on talk, possesses the gentle bedside manner of a country doctor and the skill of one of the best heart doctors the world has ever known, is supremely disciplined, and has never failed at anything he's set his mind to do. More importantly, he knows all too well that while he was the surgeon that transplanted more than one hundred fifty hearts, he's not the One who got them all started again.
This is Bill Frist.