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Front Page - Friday, July 23, 2021

Rogers column: Tennesseans might have listened to Frist on COVID-19

I’ve long been of the belief that the best thing Bill Frist did for Tennessee and the whole of the United States was to retire from the Senate in 2007. I have now reassessed that stance.

A brief update here, for context:

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about legislators harassing state health department officials, accusing them of “targeting” children for COVID shots and threatening to dismantle the department.

The fallout from that is that Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the state’s top immunization official, has been fired, and the department has backed off immunization efforts for young people involving any disease. Bad move.

Back to Frist:

I covered him on the campaign trail in 1994 in his first race for the Senate, against the incumbent Democrat Jim Sasser. About the only thing that impressed me about Frist was his ability to feign delight, stop after stop, day after day, upon hearing his campaign song delivered by the singer Austin Church.

“The world-famous Austin Church,” as Frist would sometimes introduce him. (He wasn’t, but a nice guy.) The song – for which Church wrote the music, but not lyrics – told of a liberal, taxing, two-faced Sasser out of touch with Tennesseans. The people who turned out for Frist rallies liked it a lot. They invariably clapped along.

And, who knows, maybe it helped seal the deal for Frist. In any event, he unseated Sasser by a 14-point margin in a race notably short on charisma.

Oh, and a fellow Republican named Fred Thompson won the other Tennessee Senate seat. And Republicans took the U.S. House and the Senate. A good year for the elephant.

And though he never went on to run (disastrously) for president or to make reverse mortgage TV commercials like Thompson, Frist had what has to be considered a successful tenure in the Senate. After winning reelection with 66% of the vote, he became majority leader in 2003 and helped pass such Republican staples as tax cuts and abortion limits.

Then, keeping a promise he made in 1994, he declined to run again in 2006. It’s the keeping of that promise, so rare in politics, that I’ve heretofore considered Frist’s primary laudable achievement. (Susan Collins of Maine made the same promise when she first ran in 1996. She was just elected to her fifth term.)

I read now that, since leaving office, Frist has been involved in pushing global health and anti-poverty efforts and such, but I confess to not paying much attention to him. Or any.

Until now. Remember that health department fiasco?

I seem to have forgotten to mention that Frist is a heart transplant surgeon. He’s been a strong proponent of the COVID vaccine on his Twitter account. And in the wake of recent events, he’s had this to say on Twitter:

• "#Tennessee ranks 44th in percentage of population fully vaccinated against #Covid19. That’s discouraging and deadly.”

• "It should be the top priority of our state’s leadership to lead – to unambiguously lead each and every day – in encouraging #Covid and childhood vaccinations, especially in the midst of a pandemic where infections and new variants continue to spread.”

• "We must also recognize, and actively combat, the rising vaccine hesitancy and skepticism toward science that are driving down the uptake of lifesaving childhood vaccinations for all diseases.”

• "Tennessee can stand by #science and #savelives, or we can further a dangerous trend that is eroding public health and trust in government.”

• "But it is the responsibility of our state’s leaders to take sometimes uncomfortable, even unpopular, positions when the health and lives of our people are at stake.”

All of which has led to the reassessment I mentioned and a vast upgrading of my opinion of Bill Frist.

I mean, I wouldn’t want him as president. But I do find myself wishing he were governor now. I suspect we’d all be better off.

Joe Rogers is a former writer for The Tennessean and editor for The New York Times. He is retired and living in Nashville. He can be reached at jrogink@gmail.com