Last fall, the Princeton community learned that plans were underway for a Student Center in the heart of campus, a commons much like those in other colleges where students could buy food, study, check email and real mail, and generally hang out. This project was made possible through a generous donation by a distinguished alum, a gift surpassed in recent years only by Gordon Wu's philanthropy. This alum also happens to be one of the most powerful people in America, but you wouldn't guess that if you met this humble man. Indeed, you'd probably think you were talking to your good-natured family doctor. In the case of Senator Bill Frist '74, that's pretty close.
Though one of the most active people on Capitol Hill, Frist prefers to stay out of the national spotlight – working hard behind the scenes, quite satisfied to be less recognizable than fellow Volunteer-Staters Al Gore, Fred Thompson and Lamar Alexander. At home, however, Frist enjoys consistently high approval ratings, having visited all 95 Tennessee counties and returning nearly every weekend to learn firsthand about his constituents' problems and concerns.
His dedication to Princeton has been equally resolute, and he currently serves as a Charter Trustee, one of the few outside commitments he maintained upon election to the Senate in 1994. Yet students would be hard-pressed to identify or even name this great American who walks among us at Reunions.
I first met Frist during Princeton's 250th Charter Day celebration. We talked briefly and he gave me a limited-edition coin struck in honor of his election. Then he offered me a job. Suffice it to say, the man was very charming, but this is the first impression one gets of many politicians. It was not until I actually spent some time on the fifth floor of Dirksen Senate Building that I understood how incredibly forthright Frist really is.
He'd bustle into the office between meetings, greeting staff and visitors alike with an enthusiastic, "Hellooo! How are yooou?" Then he'd call people into a modest office with plush red carpet and a U.S.S. Princeton cap on the shelf, drawing the best of each legislative assistant and making the least-experienced intern feel important. The dynamism of the man is infectious, nearly overwhelming the (mostly) twenty-somethings in his charge.
The U.S. Senate was William Harrison Frist's first elected position, and he ran a surprising campaign against stalwart Jim Sasser (now ambassador to China) – a race that front-line Republicans avoided. But why did he forgo a successful medical practice when he was at the top of his game as one of the nation's best surgeons?
During his 20-year medical career, Frist developed many diagnostic and surgical techniques and performed more than 200 heart and lung transplant procedures. As founder and director of the internationally renowned Vanderbilt Transplant Center, Frist handled Tennessee's first lung transplant, first pediatric heart transplant and the first successful heart-lung transplant in the South. His family also founded one of the largest HMOs in the country, Columbia/HCA, as the Frist boys followed their pioneering father, the late Thomas Frist, Sr., into medicine.
So why give all this up to face a daily barrage of media, lobbyists and other pressures associated with his current job? Quite simply, the good doctor saw an unfavorable prognosis for the country if its political treatment were to continue as it was charted. He did not want his three sons growing up with a bloated bureaucracy, crippling debt, ever-expanding government and general moral decay. Rather than affecting the lives of his fellow citizens on an individual basis, he would affect positive change for millions.
Frist believes strongly in the concept of the "citizen legislator," the idea that men and women from all walks of life can make valuable contributions to public service by virtue of their practical experience. As one of his predecessors, Andrew Jackson, put it, if ordinary citizens had the opportunity to govern, the quality of governance couldn't help but be the better for it.
From the start of his Senate career, Frist played a leading role in efforts to balance the budget and reduce the burden of taxes and regulations on families and small business. He also introduced legislation to allow term limits, cosponsored legislation to require Congress to live under the same laws as everyone else and, on the first anniversary of his election, introduced the Citizen Congress Act – a bill that would eliminate perks and privileges and go a long way toward restoring public faith in elected officials.
As the Senate's first doctor since 1912, Frist helped draft and pass two major pieces of health care legislation, establishing the portability of insurance and guaranteeing post-childbirth hospital coverage. He introduced bills to establish Medical Savings Accounts, to protect patient confidentiality, to reform the FDA, and a recently passed bill to allow physicians and hospitals to form their own health-provider networks. Frist also founded and heads the Senate's Science and Technology Caucus, supports doubling federal investment in basic research and has held hearings on important scientific and ethical issues like cloning. He has been a champion of people with disabilities, has fought to reduce crime and protect the environment's beautyand is working to restore excellence to schools and educational control to parents and communities.
Frist attributes much of his success – and his versatility – to the education he received at Ol' Nassau. A WWS major with interests in public health and international affairs, Frist took advantage of the Woodrow Wilson Scholars Program, which exempted him from course requirements and grades his senior year as he pursued more intense independent work.
Sen. Bill Frist, M.D., is an exemplary leader and an overall good guy. He is widely respected by colleagues on both sides of the aisle, and his opinions hold sway in the medical and scientific communities. He is devoted to his alma mater and, most importantly, he is devoted to his family. As a body of pre-professionals, we would be best to emulate the example that Frist has set: personal achievement and public service, the application of one's talents and the recognition of one's opportunities' origins.
As future classes enjoy the Frist Student Center, it would not hurt them to ponder the living legacy of a man who has quietly, but rapidly, made his mark on America and the world, never hesitating to push further.