The Magazine

Bill Frist's New South

The revenge of the patricians.

Jan 27, 2003, Vol. 8, No. 19 • By DAVID BROOKS
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PEOPLE IN TENNESSEE couldn't even agree which side to fight on in the Civil War, but today they are united around one proposition: Bill Frist is a wonderful guy. You meet diehard Democrats who think Bill Frist is a wonderful guy, alongside Confederate loyalists. Tobacco-spitting rednecks think Bill Frist is wonderful. So do liberal college professors, suburban rabbis, African-American preachers, society dames, and minivan moms. They really should put it on the license plate: "Tennessee--Home of Bill Frist, Who Is a Wonderful Guy."

They tell you stories. Aware that Bill Frist spent some summers on Nantucket, a school principal wrote him a letter asking what he should see on his upcoming visit. Senator Frist wrote back a 40-page letter describing the history and ecology of the island, and the sights that should not be missed. A weary mom was trying to lug some papers on an airplane. Frist noticed her plight and not only carried them on for her, he waited while the plane was unloading so he could carry them off for her as well. On one memorable day during a tour of Israel, Senator Frist stood on the spot where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount and read the sermon to the tour group. He electrified them with his simple faith and devotion.

And this is not even to begin to recount the tales told by the heart patients whose lives Bill Frist has saved. An old acquaintance went on a local radio station and ventured some criticism of Dr. Frist. The next day he was snowed under with hostile mail from former Frist patients.

"Bill Frist is the finest political talent the Republican party has produced," says one veteran Democratic pol. "Bill Frist is the most capable man I have ever met," says a middle aged businessman. "There is still a mystique surrounding Bill Frist at Vanderbilt," says the university's chancellor, Gordon Gee. In a moderately long career of writing about politicians, I've never come across one whose character was so universally admired. I can't tell for sure whether this reflects Frist himself or the graciousness of Nashvillians, who say nice things about people with the same fervor that New Yorkers and journalists say the reverse.

Fortunately, I didn't come to Nashville to dig up dirt on the new majority leader. I came to investigate a cluster of questions. A few years ago, the Republican party was dominated by middle-class suburban and rural southerners like Newt Gingrich, Dick Armey, and Trent Lott. Now the Republican party is dominated by southerners of a different sort--a scion of the Bush family who went to Andover, Yale, and Harvard, and a scion of the Frist family who went to Montgomery Bell Academy, Princeton, and Harvard.

The former group fought the tough political battles of the 1970s and 80s, which Bush and Frist missed or avoided. After a few years in the hands of anti-government, middle-class strivers, is the GOP now in the hands of a modernized patrician class? How is Bill Frist's South different from Trent Lott's South? What are the cultural roots of the compassionate conservatism that Bush and Frist, among others, embody? What part of America produced the rising star Bill Frist?

AT FIRST GLANCE, the answer to that last question is easy: the rich part. Bill Frist was raised in Belle Meade, the old-money suburb of Nashville and the fifth richest town in the United States. You drive down the roads and boulevards looking at the homes, which were built in the early part of the 20th century, and it looks like the Executive Mansion Hall of Fame. There are several houses that look like the White House (Al Gore lives in one). There are several that look like the sort of palazzo a Venetian prince might settle in to escape a foreign invasion. And there are a few châteaus a French president might choose to inhabit on days when he was feeling particularly grand.

Although there are a few homes in the southern plantation style (including some modern-looking Tara ramblers), the dominant mode is more like Buckingham Palace, though less showy and arriviste.

But the houses are mere specks compared with the front yards, which stretch on forever. I began to measure the yards by what kind of golf club you would need to use from the street to send a ball through a front parlor window. Some of the homes have mere 3 iron yards, but many have 2 wood yards, and several have Tiger Woods-with-a-driver-and-the-wind-at-his-back yards.