Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist squeezed me into his schedule for a 15-minute interview this morning; I stretched it to 30 minutes while his staff desperately tried to reach him and get him off the phone. Following the interview, the senator’s assistant emailed me his media schedule this morning:
7:07 am – 7:15 am ABC Good Morning America
7:18 am – 7:28 am Fox News Fox and Friends
7:30 am – 8:00 am Power Line
Fortunately for us, the folks at GMA and and Fox News were more respectful of the constraints on the senator’s time than I was. He called me on schedule, let me stretch my 15-minute allotment to 30 and let me set the agenda of questions as well. I asked if he had a special message for Power Line readers, and he responded that he wanted me to ask whatever was on my mind.
I asked him if he was leaving the Senate to run for president. He said that he was leaving the Senate in order to do keep the promise he had made to Tennessee voters in 1993 and 1994 — that if elected he would step down after two terms. I didn’t know that he had made such a promise before his election or that he was keeping the promise in stepping down from his office. He said he had not decided what he would do after leaving the Senate other than to return to Nashville to live in the house he had grown up in.
I asked him about the Iranian nuclear program. Senator Frist responded in clinical terms; he described the Iranian nuclear program as the number one threat to the mortality of America today. He said that he had just returned a week-and-a-half ago from Russia (and Poland and elsewhere) with the purpose of seeking support for the suppression of Iran’s nuclear ambitions.
I asked how much time there was for diplomacy; he said that Iran’s nuclear ambitions might be achieved in as little as two years. He acknowleged the difficulties of diplomacy under the circumstances and indirectly expressed the view that President Bush would not leave the problem for his successor, although I couldn’t elicit anything beyond the usual bromides.
With respect to his first-hand observations from his recent trip, however, Senator Frist was surprisingly blunt. He expressed extreme pessimism about the course that Russia is on. He said that it was clear that Russia “is moving in the wrong direction, less democratic, more authoritarian.”
I expressed my admiration for his accomplishments in both politics and medicine. He said that he greatly appreciated medicine as a healing profession, that he had taken the Hippocratic oath and served patients one-on-one in a healing capacity for twenty years. Then, he said, he had successfully run for office and taken an oath to support the Constitution. He sought to promote policies that would heal communities and neighborhoods as well as spread freedom. He said that both professions were fulfilling and had some surprising similarities.
What about judges? He said that nominees Terrence Boyle and Brett Kavanaugh had been waiting for a vote for five years and three years, respectively, and that their nominations needed to be addressed. My impression was that he meant to assure them an up or down vote on the floor of the Senate. He referred to 60 other judicial nominations “in the pipeline” and stated that all these nominations “need to be taken through immediately.” He anticipates an acceleration of the confirmation schedule in the coming months.
I asked about his estimate of the damage done to the NSA terrorist surveillance program by its disclosure. He said he could not put numerical values on the damage, but that he thought the program had been harmed. He nevertheless believed that it remained an important program for the defense of the United States. We’re at risk of another attack every day, Senator Frist observed, and common sense would suggest that the value of the program was diminished by its disclosure.
I asked Senator Frist about his level of confidence that Republicans would retain their majority in the Senate. He initially responded with great confidence that Republicans would “absolutely” retain their majority. He referred by name to the strong Republican Senate candidates in Washington, Minnesota and New Jersey, though he also conceded that the environment was challenging for incumbent Republican senators up for reelection.
I pressed Senator Frist on several of the issues closest to my heart at the moment — Iran, the NSA program and the judicial confirmation process. I didn’t get any further than is reflected in the comments above. I nevertheless left the conversation holding Senator Frist in at least as high regard as I had started with. Like Ronald Reagan, he is a man of substance and accomplishment in two difficult fields. I wish he were remaining in the Senate, but salute him for keeping the promise he made his fellow Tennesseans in 1994 and rejoining them while he ponders his future. One way or another, he is a man with more contributions to make.