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SPINNING BIO (PART 3)! And a HOWLER EXTRA: The Washington press corps takes a hike for their beloved Dear Leader:


FRIST IN HIS CLASS: For all we know, Tennessee surgeon-turned-solon Bill Frist may be the nicest guy on earth. But one thing is abundantly clear—Bill Frist plainly does not hate publicity; in fact, he is plainly ambitious. That’s hardly surprising in a pol of his stature, but Frist brings a new twist to an otherwise unremarkable story. Though he seems to run an impressive publicity machine, obliging pundits run to tell us how much Bill Frist hates publicity—as we saw in the recent David Brooks Standard piece (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/4/03). And make no mistake—Frist Spin will be around for years to come, as spinners try to make Frist your next president. Spinners will tell you oddball things about the surgeon solon’s great character. They’ll tell you that, when Frist left “Katie” with egg on her face, he showed how brave and courageous he is. And they’ll recite long lists of Frist-supplied cant—while saying that the humble sawbones just hates all forms of publicity.

Is Bill Frist humble? It’s hard to say, but clearly, Bill Frist is ambitious. Indeed, while refusing to see the hints of strangeness in Frist’s behavior and bio, Brooks makes that point rather clear:

BROOKS: Bill Frist has term-limited himself and is scheduled to leave the Senate in 2006. It’s hard to see him breaking that pledge. It would violate his sense of rectitude, and so damage any dreams he might have of being president someday. The more likely route is that he would leave the Senate in 2006 and begin campaigning for the White House in 2008. Some of his intimates believe he feels himself predestined for the job.
Does Frist “feel himself predestined” for the White House? Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t have a clue. But Frist routinely presents himself as a godlike surgeon, and even plays Jesus himself on the Mount. We have long cautioned against judging pols on their bios or their imagined private character. But because Brooks’ bio went to such pains to see no oddness in Frist’s odd conduct, we might as well come out and say it. If we were to judge pols on their bios and private character, Frist might well strike us as the biggest wack job to come down the turnpike in years.

Brooks is careful to intuit no evil, but his piece lends itself to cruel uses. How did Frist get to be so ambitious? It all starts out in Belle Meade, Tennessee, the super-rich enclave into which he was born. (It’s the fifth richest town in America, Brooks notes.) And it all continues at Montgomery Bell Academy, “the 136-year-old school where Belle Meaders send their boys to be educated.” According to Brooks, Frist would have been raised with “an unspoken sense that he was born to the leadership class. He would have been taught gentlemanly behavior and gracious manners.” Frist also would have absorbed “an aristocratic service ethic, both from his community and from his father, who writes about being a doctor as of a holy calling.” (Clearly, Frist has absorbed that outlook.) Beyond that, “he would have been instructed, both by his neighbors and by his family, in the need to work and strive.” How was Bill Frist taught to strive? Brooks puts us in the driver’s seat:

BROOKS: In Transplant, his 1990 book about his early days as a surgeon, Frist recalled that his mother “worked hard to protect my sense of self-worth. If Woodmont Grammar school conducted a paper drive, she motored me about afternoon after afternoon, making sure I collected more newspapers than anyone else.”…Frist’s mother made sure he sold more raffle tickets, got better grades. “She wanted me never to know humiliation, never to suffer defeat, never to feel self-doubt…Not surprisingly, with the family emphasis on self-worth, I longed to be first in everything, to be king of the hill, the grammar school capo di capo. I imagine I was quite insufferable.”
Was young Frist “insufferable?” We simply can’t say. Beyond that, we believe that pols should be judged on their conduct as pols, not on what they did as teen-agers, and not on whether Mommy drove them around so they could get their feet on the necks of their ten-year-old colleagues. Meanwhile, Frist, who became a highly successful surgeon, is an extremely talented man—a man who has achieved many great things in the world of medicine. But if it’s bio we’re going to spin, Frist’s early bio can be spun several ways. By his own account, the insufferable sophomore was soon striving hard at Harvard Med, telling lies to animal shelters in order to get lots of cats he could kill, and leaving his ten-year girl friend at the altar after taking up with someone else. “At the time, only the ticking off of accomplishments seemed to matter,” Brooks quotes Frist saying in Transplant. As we’ll see tomorrow, those who want to spin this man’s bio could ask if that last part has changed.

We now find Frist playing Christ on the Mount—and seeming to encourage the story to spread. We find Frist flying off to Sudan—and taking the AP with him. We’ll admit it: the Sermon story makes our skin crawl—but pols should not be judged on such fare. Pols should be judged on their conduct as pols. So how does Frist fare in that area? Tomorrow: Frist in the hearts of his countrymen.

YOU NEVER FORGET THE FRIST TIME: For someone so humble, who hates all publicity, Frist’s stories seem to get better with time. When Frist first went to Sudan in 1998, he dragged the AP along for the ride. Karin Davies was on the scene as Frist swooped down on that country:

DAVIES (2/2/98): The senator from Tennessee swooped the bush plane low as he crossed the border to rebel-controlled southern Sudan, skimming treetops to avoid radar detection on a mission to bring medicine to people isolated by war.

The eight-seat plane rumbled to a dusty halt on the dirt airstrip, where Bill Frist and Christian aid workers were welcomed by a dozen rebels armed with AK-47 automatic rifles and broad smiles.

A dozen friendlies flashed big smiles as they welcomed the suturin’ surgeon. But a few years later, the nugget story had clearly improved. When Michael Kranish profiled Frist in the Boston Globe, Doc was now dealin’ with danger:
KRANISH (10/27/02): Frist has visited Africa every year for the past five years but not as a senator. Instead, he travels as a physician, at his own expense, as a medical missionary in the service of the Rev. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham…

The trips are dangerous and difficult. In 1999, Frist, a pilot since the age of 16, flew a Cessna Caravan into southern Sudan territory held by a rebel faction. As Frist landed, 50 gunmen emerged and brandished their AK-47s. The men, it turned out, had come to escort him. Frist usually visits several countries on these trips, often staying in grass huts. The trips are also notable because Frist does something that he rarely does back in the United States: He returns to the operating table, performing all manner of surgery.

Hmm. The twelve friendly men had turned into fifty, and the gunmen weren’t smiling this time.

Is this story accurate? We don’t have a clue. Other reports have all seemed to say that Frist first visited Sudan in 1998, then went again in 2000 and in the years that followed. And let’s make it clear—many people in Africa are walking around because Frist swooped in to help them. Good—and let’s say “good” once again! But why did the “predestined” solon take those “unpublicized” trips? There is no way for our pundits to know—although they’ll be spinning the trips for years—and that is why we keep suggesting that our pols should be judged on their actual policies, not on sweet spin from their bios.

The Daily update

SUPINE BEFORE THEIR DEAR LEADER: What ever got into the Washington Post? We’re not sure, but as of today, things are back to normal. Yesterday, the Post rattled, ranted, railed and roared over Bush’s new budget proposal (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/4/03). In particular, the Post screamed about the unannounced “Trojan horse” Bush’s budget contained, that $1.5 trillion in new proposed tax cuts. In the past few weeks, the president had gone out and misled us again, letting us think that he was proposing about $674 in new cuts. On Monday, the larger package showed up unannounced in his new budget plan. At the Post, an editorial screamed and Jonathan Weisman produced a large piece about the unannounced cuts.

Today, all is normal again. Jim VandeHei reports on the Bush budget plan, writing as if what happened Monday was all in perfect order:

VANDEHEI (pgh 3): As part of his $2.23 trillion budget for next year, Bush has proposed tax cuts totaling $1.5 trillion over the next decade, which would cover such items as estate taxes and savings plans. The House and Senate in the coming weeks will begin debating the package’s centerpiece: a $695 billion plan to eliminate the tax on dividends, speed up rate cuts and increase the child tax credit.
Last week, of course, citizens were led to believe that that “centerpiece” was Bush’s whole plan. Reading VandeHei, a citizen would get no idea that most of that $1.5 trillion package had just popped up out of the blue. Meanwhile, Weisman’s piece today offers only a hint that something odd has occurred:
WEISMAN (pgh 5): One GOP senator said yesterday that Republicans are worried Bush is “overreaching” by pushing for larger tax cuts than “he originally let on but at the same driving up deficits” to new heights.
A GOP senator notes that Bush’s proposed cuts are “larger than he originally let on.” Pravda-trained readers will take meaning from that, perhaps realizing that Bush has now submitted cuts than that are twice the size of the cuts he had seemed to disclose. On Tuesday, the Post recoiled at Bold Leader’s conduct. Today, a reader would have to do between lines to learn that massive new cuts have in fact been proposed.

But at the New York Times, the situation is worse. In fact, the situation simply defies belief; as of today, New York Times readers haven’t even been told about the new Bush tax cuts! Today, the Times presents two pages of stories in which the paper pretends to discuss the new Bush budget. But nowhere does a reader learn about the new Bush tax cuts. Nor were the cuts mentioned in yesterday’s Times; on Tuesday, the Times published at least five major articles and an editorial about the Bush budget, but none of these pieces informed Times readers that Bush had proposed massive new tax cuts in addition to those he had publicly discussed. How inept was the Times reporting? In her page-one report, Elisabeth Bumiller failed to mention the new Bush cuts, which double the size of his tax-cut package. But she did tell readers that Bush’s budget was “a five-inch stack of five paperback volumes weighing more than 13 pounds.”

Other papers at least informed readers that Bush had proposed new, major cuts. But they treated Bush’s massive new cuts as a meaningless throw-away item. At USA Today, for example, Tuesday’s page-one story by Judy Keen and Lawrence McQuillan didn’t mention the size of Bush’s cuts; in fact, the story didn’t even say that any new tax cuts had been proposed. Meanwhile, in William Welch’s page-five piece, the new cuts were cited, but were also ho-hummed, simply mentioned in passing:

WELCH (pgh 6): In a historical context, the deficits expected this year and next would top the previous high borrowing mark of $290 billion, set in 1992 under the first President Bush. Administration officials note that the deficits are smaller than historic peaks when calculated as a percentage of the nation's economy, which exceeds $ 10 trillion a year. The president says more tax cuts, totaling $1.5 trillion over a decade, are needed to get the economy moving, even if that means borrowing money to cover lost revenue.
That was it! A reader would have no way of knowing that those tax cuts were more than twice the size of the package Bold Leader had discussed.

Bush’s new proposal is simply remarkable, both for what is shows about Bush himself, and for what it shows us about our “press corps.”

Regarding Bush: Has a bigger fake ever lived in the White House? As a candidate, Bush faked and falsified his actual values, making us think that he was carefully calibrating his tax cut plan to produce long-term balanced budgets. We were told that the tax cut package of $1.3 trillion over ten years was all that the numbers would allow. But in 2001, Bush passed a slightly larger tax-cut plan—and now he seeks additional cuts that are even larger than that initial package, the one over which he pretended to agonize. Plainly, Bush’s ongoing conduct bears no relation to the posing which drove his campaign. And he presents this new plan in the dead of the night—refusing even to tell his subjects about his new, large proposals. What kind of a man behaves in this way—hiding behind a war and a space disaster to peddle plans he’s too craven to acknowledge? Perhaps you know what kind of man—a Dear Leader behaves in this way. Has any president ever treated the “public” with such contempt? With such undisguised condescension?

But even more astounding is the press corps’ conduct. If this gang were shipped to North Korea, would they have any trouble fitting in? Try to believe that the president did it! Try to believe that he stood up in public the last few weeks, making us think that he was proposing $674 billion in new tax cuts! And try to believe that when the 13-pound truth was plopped down on desks—when it became clear that the president had simply deceived us—try to believe that USA Today treated this as a normal event, barely worth a word of mention, and try to believe that the hapless Times hasn’t even reported what occurred!

We have a Dear Leader, elected by stealth. And we have the perfect press corps for him—cowards, incompetents, Monicas all. No wonder they hated Lewinsky so much. Little people always see their own despised qualities in the vile, vile conduct of others. And of course, there’s one point more—such people always love to go supine before a very Dear Leader.