Harry Reid, Bill Frist, My Boss’s Coma and Control of the U.S. Senate

The next day, I and Tim’s family were in another waiting room of a private hospital, watching CNN medical reporter Sanjay Gupta give surreal reports on “Tim Johnson’s mind,” when he unexpectedly comes into the room but was a Republican (and about to retire) on the board. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, with the attending physician at the US Capitol, Dr. John Isolde. Suddenly, the dark political reality collapsed upon us. No one lost that the Democrats had won barely enough seats to take control of the Senate and make Harry Reid the new majority leader, but only by a very narrow majority of 51 to 49 seats. With CNN and other cable news networks reporting nausea on hospital televisions, if Tim dies, Republicans will retain control of the Senate, where his replacement will be chosen by the Republican Governor of South Dakota, Mike Rounds, and Vice President Dick Cheney will collapse. A 50-50 tie in the Senate favors the Republican Party. Back then, as now, control of the Senate hinged on just one seat—and in moments like these, the health of a senator could become a matter of paramount national importance.

It was more than a little jarring to see Frist. Two years earlier, in 2004, he broke the Senate precedent that a party leader would not campaign against his other party counterpart when he traveled to South Dakota to campaign against Daschle, Tim’s close friend and then the Senate Democratic leader. Some of us – like me – still have very difficult feelings about it. It wasn’t strange at all for Isolde to be there – his office was initially on the scene when Tim needed help the day before, and checking in on a congressman who was in a Washington, D.C. hospital was part of his duties. However, trying as best I could, I couldn’t understand why Frist was there – it seemed a little strange, as Tim and Frist had no relationship at all, but Frist didn’t stay longer than required to pay his respects to Tim. Wife, Barb, then he and Isolde said goodbye and left, most likely to return to the Senate.

Or so I thought. A few minutes after Frist and Isolde left, I went to check on Tim, and to my surprise, Frist and Isolde were in Tim’s hospital room, talking to his doctors, while Tim lay in a coma in bed, plugged into various devices. “what the hell?” I believed; No one gave the Republican Senate Majority Leader, of all people, permission to infiltrate Tim’s room. Now it seemed to me that Frist’s visit to the family was a hoax and that he was there on a reconnaissance mission to find out Tim’s predictions–whether he would live or die, or what he would be like if he recovered. (Editor’s note: First says, “I was there as a friend and a doctor.)

It wasn’t true, but I didn’t know what to do – I certainly didn’t have the standing to kick the Senate Majority Leader out of Tim’s room. But then it occurred to me to call Harry Reid – he would have known what to do – so I did.

When I told Red about the whereabouts of Frist and Isolde, he exploded with rage. “What is Isolde doing bringing Frist there? He knows better than that!” And then, “Tell Frist he won’t talk to the media when he leaves the hospital, and I will speak to Isolde when he gets back to the Capitol!”

When I spoke to Frist, he replied, “Oh, I’d never do that!” He didn’t comment, but he also refused to follow the hospital’s public relations officer’s suggestion that he unobtrusively exit the back door, instead venturing out the front bypassing the network battalion and news cameras lined up in what looked like a “death watch.” I thought: Frist wanted Take a picture of his visit to the ailing Democratic senator. Welcome to Washington…

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