November 1, 2003 - One year ago, Bill Frist could not have imagined being the leader of what he calls "the most powerful legislative body in the world, probably in history." He would rather be known as a physician than as a politician. But last winter the politically divided U.S. Senate needed his surgical touch and faith, and his colleagues unanimously chose the second-term senator from Tennessee to serve as Majority Leader.
by Tom Layton
Dr. Frist, 51, has made several short-term mission trips to Africa with the medical arm of Samaritan's Purse. He last visited Africa in August, going to four countries with a Senate HIV/AIDS delegation and then accompanying Franklin Graham to Kenya and Sudan. During a recent visit to The Billy Graham Training Center at The Cove—where he addressed the 14th annual Prescription for Renewal conference—Frist spoke with "Decision" about his passion for Africa, his vision for the Senate, and his faith.
Q: You went the extra mile to return to Sudan on your most recent trip to Africa. You told reporters that you were looking for "the intimacy of doing what I really do, which is medicine." Why is that so compelling for you?
A: For 20 years I had the privilege of being a physician involved in the doctor-patient relationship, which is based on trust and on helping individuals live more fulfilling lives. In 1994 I went to the United States Senate with a philosophy that you could translate that care, compassion and trust to a policy level and make not just one person healthier but make the whole nation or whole groups of people healthier, allowing them to live more fulfilling lives.
Then last year I became Majority Leader of the United States Senate. One of the advantages of being Majority Leader is that you are given the voice to set policy and to set the nation's agenda. But one of the less attractive aspects is that I have less freedom to go to places like Sudan, which historically has been a terrorist nation and does not have relations with the United States. My life is built on the intimacy of human contact and on the oneness of humanity, and that was denied me when I was told, "Sen. Frist, because you are Majority Leader of the United States Senate, Sudan is not an appropriate place for you to go at this juncture." So it was valuable to me personally to be able to go now and to share with the people of Sudan my care and love for them through Samaritan's Purse.
Q: What signs of hope did you see in Sudan?
A: When we first went to Lui Hospital about five years ago, there were no gatherings of people. The church had been bombed. The school was closed. The hospital had landmines around it. When Samaritan's Purse entered, people began to gather because of the trust that's associated with health care. With that trust and help we saw hope. And with that hope we saw more people coming. Then you saw a market opening up, and the reopening of the school. This shows the power of mission-based hospitals, which are the backbone of health care throughout Africa.
A lot can still be done. The progress has been dramatic. That progress comes from the dedication of Samaritan's Purse personnel working with the local people. Working with members of the various tribes, capturing the very best of their creativity. But there's still a lot of oppression of basic human rights in southern Sudan. Although we've made a huge amount of progress in terms of health care and development, there's still a long, long way to go.
Q: You were a major sponsor of the Sudan Peace Act, which provides a comprehensive plan for ending the 20-year-old conflict there. What's your sense of the prospects for peace?
A: Over the last few weeks we've seen real progress. For the first time we can have real hope that peace that can be achieved and sustained. I am much more optimistic now than I was two months ago when I was in Sudan.
Q: Do you see signs of progress against HIV/AIDS?
A: In one of our Samaritan's Purse trips three years ago we went to some of the main hospitals and clinics in Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya. It was clear that we as a faith-based community could do a lot more in addressing this, the most daunting humanitarian public health and moral challenge of our times. We learned that basic principles of abstinence and faithfulness are effective. If these principles are injected into the equation, we can reverse this pandemic. About 25 million people have died of AIDS, and about 45 million are infected with HIV. And in the best of all worlds another 60 million will die from this virus that 25 years ago we didn't know existed.
In 2002 Franklin Graham held a major conference, Prescription for Hope, in Washington D.C., with faith-based participants from around the world. I look at Prescription for Hope as a real turning point with its call to churches throughout the world to address head-on this pandemic that is overtaking countries, depressing economies and destroying families throughout the world.
Q: Are you encouraged by Christians' response to HIV/AIDS?
A: Until very recently, HIV/AIDS had a stigma attached to it that led many leaders of individual churches, as well as national leaders, to say it's an issue we can't address. The dramatic turn that we've seen in the last three years is not only encouraging but also absolutely necessary to see a solution to this daunting challenge. It is still difficult. And it's not just difficult in the countries of Africa or in Haiti or in Russia or in China or in India, all of which have millions of people infected. It's also difficult here in the United States.
Every 10 seconds, one person dies of HIV/AIDS. Every 10 seconds two are infected. And the disease has no cure. That demands that we confront, that we de-stigmatize, that we employ prevention, care and treatment. There is no better vehicle than the Church, which throughout most countries is already participating in social services, health care, moral vision and spiritual care.
There is hope for immediate physical help in terms of combating HIV/AIDS and the manifestations of the virus and physical death, but that is tied to the hope for eternal life. It is that linkage that the church has begun, in large part because of the leadership of Franklin Graham.
Historically, a lot of governments have said HIV/AIDS is a non-religious issue. But it is those same states whose leadership has failed to address the issue, to the disservice of their citizens, and millions of people have died. In Uganda, the leadership is working hand-in-hand with the Church, stressing the methods that we know work. It is faith-based. Places like South Africa, where neither the Church nor the state got involved, has some 5 million people infected right now. And all 5 million are going to die, because there is no cure for HIV/AIDS.
Q: What perspective do you bring back to the Senate from Africa?
A: After the interaction with patients, being able to perform surgery, and meeting with the presidents of those countries, I'm even more convicted that we've got work to do. We can win the battle against HIV/AIDS. We need to work as a team. We need to pull the best out of all partners that are involved—non-government organizations, pharmaceutical companies, political leaders, faith-based organizations—recognizing that if we can do this, we can reverse this pandemic.
The United States has committed $15 billion to HIV/AIDS over a five-year period. Since this is the boldest single health initiative in history, we need to make sure that taxpayer money is spent wisely. That's why it's important for me to be on the ground, to work in clinics and to touch patients that can't be touched by any other person in the United States Senate today—to learn how we can best spend that money.
People may ask, "Why not more money?" When I spoke at Prescription for Hope, we talked about our huge new commitment to HIV/AIDS, which had been about $120 million. We were going to double it. Now this year we're talking about $2.1 billion. Our commitment has increased by tenfold over a period of a few years.
Q: Senate politics can test your faith. How does your faith influence your leadership?
A: My leadership style is different probably than any other leader in the history of the body. First, it is mission-based. That mission is to move America forward and to do it in a way that celebrates our liberty and freedom. Second, my leadership style is values-based. The values are trust and civility. You treat people with respect in terms of capturing the best out of them so you can use it to everybody's benefit and minimize weaknesses. Third, it is a relationship-centered approach to leadership—relationships among the senators themselves. It cuts through a lot of the partisanship that can contribute to stress. Fourth, it is action-based. This comes from being a surgeon. I want solutions to problems, not just talk—not just the usual rhetoric.
On each of those four components of my leadership, there is a basis of my Judeo-Christian principles. We'll see if the style works. The fact that my colleagues came to me and chose me unanimously says that it is a style they respect and want to see.
Q: What do you do personally to stay grounded in your faith?
A: I pray every morning before work. I spend lot of time with family—each of my children has been to Sudan with me to share the marriage of spirituality with my occupation. And we're in church every Sunday.
In the Senate, we have our prayer breakfast every Wednesday with 16 other Senators, and we have Bible study on Thursday.
Q: They say that the Senate is the world's most exclusive club, but the Senate Bible study must be even more so.
A: I was just talking to Billy Graham about the history of the prayer breakfast. It started with a group of house members in 1942 and senators in 1943. That grew into the National Prayer Breakfast. To this day, every Wednesday from 8 a.m. until 9 a.m., anywhere from 12 to 20 senators get together. Nobody else is in the room. Just United States Senators sharing in fellowship. Bipartisan. Personal. Sensitive issues. Non-public. Nothing goes out. Egos disappear. Arrogance out the window. All the things you'd see in a politician and say, "That's impossible." That is in many ways the most exclusive meetings we have. But in many ways, because it centers on the Lord Jesus Christ, it is probably one of the most universal meetings that we have.
Q: What Scripture guides your career?
A: My first public words as Majority Leader of the United States Senate, after what was a very trying time, were from Proverbs 16:9: "In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps" (NIV). I had not intended to be majority leader of the United States Senate, and I didn't run to be majority leader of the United States Senate. So in my heart I had certainly planned the course, but the Lord determined my steps.