Senator Frist Plays Doctor

In the midst of the questions swirling around Congressman

Gary Condit and the disappearance of Chandra Levy, The Wall Street Journal published a glowing article on Senator

William Frist, Republican of Tennessee, writing that he was shining proof that

Congress was not composed entirely of “lowlifes.” It seems that Journal columnist Al Hunt had dinner at

Mr. Frist’s home, where he was treated to tales of the Senator’s

extracurricular work as a medical doctor “in war-ravaged southern Sudan, in a

makeshift operating room with no electricity or running water.” Mr. Hunt raced

home and typed up his column, titled “Senator, Surgeon and Samaritan,” in which

he described Mr. Frist as a kind of swashbuckling Harrison Ford with a medical

degree and declared him one of the 

“best people in politics.” Given that Mr. Frist, a staunch ally of

George W. Bush, is mentioned as a Republican Presidential contender in 2008,

Mr. Hunt’s column was money in the bank.

But the facts of the Senator’s moonlighting medical travels

are somewhat less exotic than Mr. Hunt’s enthralled account, and somewhat

troubling. It’s true that, before being

elected to the Senate in 1994, Mr. Frist was a reputable surgeon with a Harvard Medical School degree who

specialized in heart and lung transplants and founded a transplant

center at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. He stopped practicing heart

surgery when he was elected because, he said, “You have to keep your hands

nimble.” But he hasn’t stopped scrubbing up altogether: As Mr. Hunt wrote, the Senator has traveled to

Africa annually for the past three years, staying a week and performing a few

surgeries, such as a hip replacement, a goiter removal and a hernia

operation. About the hernia operation, the Senator told Mr. Hunt, “It’s a

simple operation, but without it, they die”-a curious assessment, given that untreated hernias are not regarded as

fatal by those in the medical profession.

One must assume that Mr. Frist has the best of intentions,

but one must also ask if a doctor who performs only a handful of operations a

year, in between his duties as a U.S.

Senator, is able to keep his medical skills sharp enough to benefit

those he’s treating. It’s hard to imagine that the chief of any hospital would

allow a surgeon with such infrequent operating-room time to just pop in

whenever he pleases and operate on patients. Would Mr. Hunt, or his editors at The Wall Street Journal , go to Mr. Frist

if they needed an operation? Of course not-they would be up at Presbyterian

Hospital, attended by the best surgeons available. And who can really say what

the outcome is of Mr. Frist’s activities in the Sudan?  He’s on a plane back to Washington within a

week, having done just enough surgery to win the adulation of The Journal , but leaving the follow-up

procedures to the doctors who work there full-time.

Only a cynic would suggest that Mr. Frist’s trips to Africa

are nothing but clever public relations. In his youth, he clearly had the

motivation to undertake a full-time medical career, and chances are that he

still wants to put those skills to good use. And there is no question that he

is of a different caliber than the evasive

Gary Condit. But there is something unseemly about the mythology being

stoked by Mr. Hunt and others. If Mr. Frist wants to go back to being a doctor,

he should resign his seat and start practicing medicine. If he wants to be a

Senator, he should ask himself if picking up a scalpel a few times a year

qualifies him to hold the well-being of others in his hands.

Will Bush Welch on Hudson?

It’s beginning to look likely that the Bush administration

and its oft-humiliated head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christie

Whitman, are going to let Jack Welch and

General Electric off the hook. Reports indicate that Ms. Whitman, acting

on behalf of the administration, will support a watered-down plan to clean up

the PCB’s that G.E. dumped in the upper Hudson River.

Environmentalists and

elected officials have demanded that the contaminated riverbed be dredged at

G.E.’s expense. The Clinton administration supported a plan that would cost the

company about $480 million. G.E. has run a massive publicity campaign against

the plan, but it will be very happy if Ms. Whitman decides on a compromise that

would call for dredging only a small part of the riverbed, at a cost of $100

million. Governor George Pataki, who likes to be thought of as a green

Republican, says he favors dredging, but he hasn’t taken a strong position on

the dueling dredging plans. Ms. Whitman’s position isn’t quite clear, although

it’s worth noting that she has been putting off meeting with environmentalists.

That this matter is even under discussion is a disgrace;

that G.E. and the Bush administration seem prepared to undertake a token

cleanup is a scandal. Mr. Welch’s legacy at G.E. will be tainted if this

short-sighted plan is put into effect. As for Ms. Whitman, she will deserve the

scorn of those who accuse her of being a gutless tool of the Bush administration.

If she is truly a steward of the environment, Ms. Whitman

will recommend full dredging; and if her boss, the President, resists, she will


Teach for America

New York City’s students can only be as good as their

teachers, and the failure of the education

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