CBS News Resurrects Bill Frist
In the age of Katie Couric, CBS Evening News has become synonymous with journalism as puffery and the interview as hagiography. But on Wednesday, Couric and correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta reached a new low in a fawning profile of former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. In just a few minutes, CBS helped abet the conversion of the Schiavo misdiagnosing, AIDS myth propagating, feline dissecting, partisan hatchet man into a noble crusader for children's health.
As I wrote earlier this month, the well-respected non-governmental organization Save the Children recently selected Dr. Bill Frist as its front-man for its new "Survive to 5" campaign against childhood mortality. (For more details on the program, visit here.) But despite his checkered past when it comes to the misuse of science, CBS gave Frist an opportunity to redefine himself as the second coming of Al Gore, merely swapping the fight against global warming for childhood diseases in the developing world:
"I was surprised at one of the people you cited as one of your role models now, in post-public official life, is Al Gore," says Gupta.
"It's fascinating to me. He had a passion -- it was the environmental issues. I don't agree with everything that Al stands for," Frist says, "but taking an issue that is important, that does affect health in many ways, and elevating it to the global arena-- it's some thing that I really admire."
Frist has not ruled out an eventual return to politics, but for now, he believes that he can change the world, by helping to save the lives of those children.
But even with his past, high-profile efforts on behalf of children in the developing world, Dr. Bill Frist brings a lot of baggage to his latest crusade. As he showed repeatedly while Majority Leader, Senator Bill Frist was never shy about subverting medicine and science for political purposes.
The case of Terri Schiavo provides but one case in point. During the height of the intense battle over Michael Schiavo's effort to honor his wife's wishes in March 2005, Doctor Frist took to the Senate floor to offer his own videotape diagnosis, Disputing assessments that Schiavo was in a permanent vegetative state (a diagnosis later confirmed by autopsy), Frist declared:
"I question it based on a review of the video footage which I spent an hour or so looking at last night in my office," he said in a lengthy speech in which he quoted medical texts and standards. "She certainly seems to respond to visual stimuli."
A surprised and concerned Laurie Zoloth, director of bioethics for the Center for Genetic Medicine at Northwestern University, noted of Doctor Frist's statements, "It is extremely unusual -- and by a non-neurologist, I might add. There should be no confusion about the medical data, and that's what was so surprising to me about Dr. Frist disagreeing about her medical status." Democratic strategist Marshall Wittman was much less charitable:
"I suspect that Senator Frist has his eye more on the Iowa caucus than the Hippocratic Oath."
Frist's perversion of science for partisan political ends hardly starts - or ends - there. The previous December, Senator Frist tried to defend a federally-funded abstinence program which claimed that HIV/AIDS could be contracted through tears and sweat. Pressed by ABC News host George Stephanopoulos, Frist was forced to recant. "It would be very hard," he said. In 2003, Frist fast-tracked a House version of President Bush's $15 billion AIDS bill that incorporated religious amendments funding abstinence programs and barring condom distribution by faith-based groups.
Frist's political uses of science cut both ways. In 2001, Senator Frist strongly supported President Bush's draconian curbs on stem cell research But in the wake of his disastrous intervention in the Schiavo case, would-be presidential candidate Frist decided discretion was the better part of valor and switched sides. After his Schiavo debacle, Frist no doubt concluded the reversal on stem cells was necessary for the 2008 general election; calling him a "sell-out" and "Dr. Duplicity", his former friends on the religious right made it clear he would never survive the GOP primaries.
Doctor Frist's dubious medical ethics both predated and followed his time in elected office. As a student, Frist was a frequent visitor to animal shelters where the future Doctor adopted cats only to dissect them later as part of his learn-at-home medical studies. Later, Senator Frist's World of Hope faith-based charity may have won awards for its work on AIDS, but its fundraising also filled the coffers of many of Frist's closest associates. And in 2007, Frist narrowly avoided insider trading charges in connection with his sale of stock from the HCA business started by his father and brother.
In the aftermath of Frist's Senate floor witness malpractice regarding Terri Schiavo, Democratic strategist Jim Jordan noted, "It'd be hilarious if it weren't so grotesque, how his presidential ambitions and pandering to the right wing is clashing with his life's work."
Alas, Save the Children is now letting the quackery of Dr. Bill Frist tarnish its good works. And sadly, CBS News just gave him a helping hand on the path to his political resurrection.