Anyone who thinks that Bill Frist's presidential prospects have been extinguished by a few questions about a rancid-looking little stock sale that may or may not be insider trading is either blissfully naive or a confirmed amnesiac. Bill Clinton, remember, got to be president even with the Gennifer Flowers tape hanging around his neck, and George W. Bush survived questions about a drunken-driving arrest and whether he was AWOL from the National Guard.
So Frist sold high just before the stock went low, and there is some suggestion that he got regular updates on what was in his "blind trusts." He may have been just living by the Reagan-era doctrine of "trust but verify."
For most Americans, adultery and driving after you've had a snoutful are more accessible demerits than the convoluted rules about blind trusts and the strictures against profiting from privileged information. So I say we have to assume that the direct damage to the senator's presidential chances, whatever they were to begin with, is going to be minimal.
I say all that to say this: Frist is now learning, early, how withering the scrutiny of a presidential campaign can be, and how easy it is to lose control of your message and your image. By his own admission, the stock sale was supposed to be an early strategic positioning for his 2008 run. "Looking ahead at my final years in the Senate and what might come next," says Frist, "I have for some time wanted to eliminate even the possibility of an appearance of a conflict by totally divesting."
And divest he did; total divestment that, for the moment, has turned into a total disaster — a tactical maneuver that has backfired. Frist sold the stock from several of his blind trusts about two weeks before the Hospital Corporation of America (HCA), the Tennessee-based company started by his family, announced that it expected a drop in future earnings. That bad news caused the stock to drop more than 15 percent in price, so those two weeks saved Frist millions of dollars. The tale is further complicated by the fact that other top HCA executives were also dumping shares at the same time to the tune of $112 million. The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has thus decided to investigate, and has subpoenaed HCA documents in the case.
Surely this is not how one would typically ramp up for a presidential run. But, depending on how he handles the heat, this trial could be more of a blessing than a curse for Frist. That's because whomever he runs against in the GOP primary will likely face some crisis of his or her own, and having survived an early test could afford the majority leader some advantage. That's the good news.
The bad news is Tom DeLay.