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Frist: What's It All About?

Their farewell hug was awkward at best.

When Democratic leader Harry Reid held open his arms to the man he battled and will replace, retiring Majority Leader Bill Frist, the Tennessee doctor hesitated before returning the embrace.


Frist, serving the last days of a self-imposed two-term limit, held the Senate itself at a bit of a distance during four years as majority leader. The Tennessee Republican, who was often talked about as a possible presidential candidate, came to Washington in 1994 after a career as a heart transplant surgeon.

The partisan warfare and scheduling minutiae of the Senate's top job often exasperated Frist. He recently reported suffering what sounded like a case of burnout, and abandoned a nascent bid for president.

In a somewhat contemplative mood Thursday, Frist's farewell speech to his Senate colleagues offered a glimpse of the questions the GOP leader asked himself at weary moments during his tenure. He urged his fellow lawmakers to do the same.

"What is it really all about?" Frist said. "Is it about keeping the majority? Is it about red states versus blue? Is it about lobbing attacks, in some way, across the aisle? ... Is it about war rooms, whose purpose is not to contrast ideas, but to destroy?

"Or is it more?" Frist intoned to the more than 40 Republicans and 20 Democrats in attendance.

Frist's Senate career bookended a Republican revolution. Never having run for office, the Harvard-trained doctor ousted Sasser as part of the storied class of 1994 and helped turn Democrats out of the congressional majority for the first time in 40 years.

In between, Frist rose from 100th in seniority to its top job when Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., was forced to step down as majority leader over remarks interpreted as supporting segregationist policies. Frist was elected to that post with the White House's blessing - and Lott's resentment.

But on Thursday, with Lott returning to GOP leadership as Republican whip and past bitter battles with Reid over judicial nominations, Frist and his colleagues bid pleasant and respectful farewells.

Speaking in the collegial tradition of the Senate, Democratic lion Edward Kennedy said he did not trust Frist at first, but came to hold him in great regard. Reid saluted Frist's commitment to his family - wife, Karyn, and sons Harrison and Bryan - who watched Thursday's events from a perch in the gallery.

Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., an old Senate bull who admitted to calling Frist "Sen. First" in his early days, revealed that during private meetings Frist secretly also gave the older senator medical care.

So back to practicing medicine Frist will return, when the 109th Congress concludes this week.

"You're not going to be some little country doctor, you're not even going to be a regular doctor. It'll be something bigger than that," Domenici predicted.

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