Sen. Bill Frist leaves politics behind

Senate Majority Leader Bill First, R-Tenn., (center) leaves the Senate after a self-imposed two-term limit expires.Dennis Cook / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Their farewell hug was awkward at best.

When Democratic leader Harry Reid held open his arms to the man he battled and will replace, retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Tennessee doctor hesitated before returning the embrace.


Frist, serving the last days of a self-imposed two-term limit, held the Senate itself at a bit of a distance during four years as majority leader. The Tennessee Republican made no secret of the fact that his first occupational love was heart transplant surgery and practicing medicine in general - fields in which he had already made a name before defeating Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser in 1994.

Republican revolution bookend
The partisan warfare and scheduling minutiae of the Senate's top job often exasperated Frist. He recently reported suffering what sounded like a case of burnout, and abandoned a nascent bid for president.

His farewell speech Thursday offered a glimpse of the questions Frist asked himself at weary moments during his tenure. He urged his colleagues to do the same.

"What is it really all about?" Frist said. "Is it about keeping the majority? Is it about red states versus blue? Is it about lobbing attacks in some way across the aisle? ... Is it about war rooms whose purpose is not to contrast ideas but to destroy?

"Or is it more?" Frist intoned to more than 40 Republicans and 20 Democrats in attendance.

Frist's Senate career bookended a Republican revolution. Never having run for office, the Harvard-trained doctor ousted Sasser as part of the storied class of 1994 and helped turn Democrats out of the congressional majority for the first time in 40 years.

In between, Frist rose from 100th in seniority to its top job when Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was forced to step down as majority leader over remarks interpreted as supporting segregationist policies. Frist was elected to that post with the White House's blessing - and Lott's resentment.

Bipartisan farewells
But on Thursday, with Lott returning to GOP leadership as Republican whip and past bitter battles with Reid over judicial nominations, Frist and his colleagues bid pleasant and respectful farewells.

Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., admitted not trusting Frist at first, but came around to hold him in great regard. Reid saluted Frist's commitment to his family - wife, Karyn, and sons Harrison and Bryan - who watched from the gallery.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., an old Senate bull who admitted to calling Frist "Sen. First" in his early days, revealed that during private meetings Frist secretly also gave the older senator medical care.

So back to practicing medicine Frist will return when the 109th Congress concludes this week.

"You're not going to be some little country doctor, you're not even going to be a regular doctor. It'll be something bigger than that," Domenici predicted.