By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 30, 2006
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist announced yesterday that he will not run for president in 2008, saying that he plans to "take a sabbatical from public life" and return to his Tennessee home and professional roots as a doctor.
Long viewed as a potentially formidable candidate for the GOP nomination, Frist seemed to be positioning himself for a presidential run earlier this year. He traveled to the early primary states of New Hampshire, Iowa and South Carolina to test the waters, and he used his political action committee to spread campaign contributions -- and sow goodwill -- among GOP candidates around the country. Meanwhile, he worked to cultivate an image as a staunch and thoughtful conservative.
But bruised by a series of political stumbles, Frist, 54, decided that now is not the time to run for higher office. "In the Bible, God tells us for everything there is a season, and for me, for now, this season of being an elected official has come to a close," he said in a written statement. "I do not intend to run for president in 2008."
Frist's decision creates an opening on the right flank of the GOP political spectrum, while still leaving a broad field of potential presidential candidates for 2008, which will mark the first time since 1952 that an incumbent president or vice president will not be vying for the nation's highest office.
His decision comes as part of an early winnowing of the field of potential presidential contenders. Former Virginia governor Mark R. Warner (D) said recently that he will not run, and two potential GOP candidates, Sens. George Allen (Va.) and Rick Santorum (Pa.), were defeated in their reelection bids earlier this month.
Frist, a pioneering heart-lung-transplant surgeon, never voted until age 36 and had no previous political experience when he was elected to the Senate in an upset in 1994. At the time, he promised to serve no longer than two terms, a vow he fulfilled when he decided not to run for reelection this year.
"I said I'd come to the Senate with 20 years' experience in healing, spend 12 years serving in Washington, then go right back to Tennessee to live where I grew up," stated Frist, who was said by his staff to be unavailable for interviews. "I've never deviated from that commitment."
Frist's background as a surgeon, his frequent work in Washington health clinics and his repeated travels to Africa to care for needy patients seemed to give him an image that added an unusual dimension to his conservative politics.
"What facilitated his rapid rise among the ranks was the fact that he was and is a conservative but came across as a very common-sense, reasonable conservative," said Jim Dyke, a communications consultant who has worked for VOLPAC, Frist's political action committee. "People think differently about him than the trademark conservative."
But Frist began to lose some of that aura after a series of politically damaging events, including an on-going investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into allegations of insider trading in his sale of shares in HCA Inc., a hospital chain founded by his father and his brother. The sale was completed just weeks before the company issued an earnings estimate that fell short of analysts' expectations, causing a drop in HCA's stock price.
Frist has also faced questions about his role on the board of a charitable foundation that paid consulting fees to some of his close political allies.
Last year, Frist injected himself into the legislative drama over Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged and bedridden Florida woman who died after her husband decided to have her feeding tube removed, despite congressional efforts to reverse his decision.
After viewing a videotape of the woman, Frist, a surgeon, publicly questioned the diagnosis that said Schiavo would never recover. That action was widely viewed as a sop to religious conservatives. An autopsy later proved Frist wrong.
Also, Frist has been drawn into caustic confrontations with Senate Democrats since being elevated to majority leader in 2002, reinforcing the view of him as an intense partisan. Although friends and colleagues say he never violated his principles, they note that the job of majority leader obscured what they say is Frist's true character. Moreover, he was politically weakened when Republicans lost control of both chambers of Congress in the midterm elections earlier this month.
"Being majority leader, you become defined more by the job than by who you are," Dyke said.
Frist was not specific about his future plans other than to say that he wants to return to Tennessee and "refocus my creative energies on innovative solutions to seemingly insurmountable challenges Americans face." In the short term, he said, he plans to resume his trips to impoverished corners of the world to "serve those in poverty, in famine and in civil war" as a doctor. He also said that he plans to advocate reforming the nation's health-care system.
"He is intellectually curious and has a lot of ideas that he wants to pursue, and that is hard to do if you are running for president," said Amy Call, a Frist spokeswoman. "He needed to reconnect with himself and his vision and ideas before going forward with a presidential race."