Senator Bill Frist Delivers Farewell Speech

WASHINGTON, D.C. — U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, M.D., (R–Tenn.) will deliver the following farewell address today at 2:30 p.m. EST on the Senate floor:

About two months ago, on a late Sunday afternoon when no one was around, I slipped into this chamber to carry out a time honored tradition, nearly as old as this institution itself.

I sat down at this desk, and I opened the drawer to carve my name where previous senate leaders had left theirs: Robert Taft, Hugh Scott, Everett Dirkson, Howard Baker … Your name carved deeply into the bottom of the oak drawer is the only thing permanent that one leaves around this place

And it confronted me then—as it hits me with such force today—that our time here is temporary. We are here to occupy a seat for a time, not to possess it, never to own it.

It is with that recognition—that I address you today.

I’ve reflected often these last few weeks.

I think back to the non-politician who came to this city and this body 12 years ago, with a lot of hope for the people of his home state, and a lot of hope for the future of this country.

I think back to the people who put their trust in that man’s hands.

Indeed, it was 12 years ago that I came to Washington. I came as a citizen legislator with absolutely no prior political experience. I was a doctor. I’d spent 20 years in a healing profession. In my acceptance speech, I pledged to my fellow Tennesseans that Karyn and I’d go to Washington for 12 years, for a limited period of time, with a mission to accomplish and then come back home to Tennessee.

And that’s exactly what we’ll do. Karyn and I will return to Tennessee, return home and live in the same house I was born in 54 years ago.

I still remember coming to the Hill for the first time 12 years ago. I was green. My first chief of staff Mark Tipps – just as green as I was -- likes to remind me of our very first day on the Hill, when we had to stop someone to ask: “Where is that place called the Russell building?”

But I believed deeply in the promise that I’d made. I believed—in my heart—that with determination, one person can make a difference.

Today I look back and see that I was half-right. Each of us can make a difference. But to make a difference one can’t really do it alone. I could not do it without the many people who have stood behind and with me over these last 12 years.

Karyn has honored me by her unwavering love each step along the way. Her grace in carrying out our official responsibilities, her commitment to the character of our three boys, her moral and spiritual support to me and our family -- Karyn has been the guiding river of our lives as we’ve traveled through two entirely different careers, heart surgery and politics.

Bryan, Jonathan, and Harrison -- we‘re so proud of each of you. You have faced the challenges of growing up in public life -- with media taking its swipes -- with strength and dignity. You know Tennessee is home, but you’ve taken in the rich experiences that Washington has afforded. You have grown from three young boys to three young men.

I thank the staff members who’ve been with me since the very beginning—Emily Reynolds, Ramona Lessen, Bart VerHulst, Cornell Wedge. I thank my series of chiefs of staff: Mark Tipps, Lee Rawls, Howard Liebengood, Eric Ueland, Andrea Becker, Bart and Emily. And all those who have come in and out of these doors since our very first day in the basement of Dirksen as the 100th Senator in seniority.

You’ve put the needs of this country before your own. And with a lot of hard work, a lot of heart, and a lot of hope, you’ve accomplished so much.

A few moments will always stand out in my mind. Victories like the $15 billion funding for global HIV-AIDS. Prescription drugs for seniors. Confirming John Roberts and Sam Alito to the Supreme Court.

And through it all we’ve borne witness to days that have changed the face of our nation. The Capitol shootings. September 11. Anthrax and ricin. Katrina.

But through it all, we kept at it the best way we could: with hard work, with heart, with a lot of hope.

I thank my colleagues who placed their faith in me to serve as their leader. As I said four Decembers ago when you elected me, it was—and it has been every day since—a humbling experience. On that day, I quoted Proverbs, “In his heart a man plans his course, but the Lord determines his steps.” And what fulfilling steps you have given me.

I could not let today pass without expressing my gratitude for the close friendships who shaped my time in the Senate – Howard Baker, the great Republican Leader from Tennessee, whose shoes as Majority Leader I’ve done my best to fill. He counseled me as I considered a run for public office. His sage advice I have relied upon many times in my capacity as a Senator and Leader.

Pete Domenici, who became a mentor to me on that first day in January 1995. Senators like John Warner, who we saw in action yesterday, and former senators like Don Nickles, who so wisely set the stage for the successful tax cuts we have accomplished over the past 5 years.

Mitch McConnell whose wisdom and service has been indispensable to leading the Republican majority. And who ascends in party leadership. By temperament and skill, no one is better prepared.

And my Tennessee colleagues Fred Thompson and Lamar Alexander, two great statesman with whom I’ve had the honor to work side by side to address the needs of the state of Tennessee.

I thank the two democratic leaders Tom Daschle and Harry Reid. Everyone sees the public contrasts between Harry and me, what emerges as we represent our respective parties. What people don’t see are the daily, private conversations off the floor, where views are respected, burdens shared and family discussed. Karyn and I leave this body with deep respect for Harry and Landra and their contributions to this country.

And to all my colleagues who have reached across the aisle and across differences when you could, thank you.

12 years ago….the people of Tennessee took a great chance. They took a chance on a little known doctor who had never held public office, who had never run for public office. They began by opening their minds, and then their homes, then their lives and their hearts. And I’m eternally grateful to them for giving me that trust and taking that chance.

'It is,' my Dad used to say, ‘a powerful thing to know where you are going in life, but it is equally powerful to know where you have come from.’

To the good people of Tennessee, I thank you for never letting me forget where I’ve come from. You’ve never let me forget those promises made on the trail over a decade ago…the promises that have been at the heart of everything we’ve done.

Yours are the voices that have called out to me from Mountain City to Memphis. The people who are out there working, day-in and day-out to take care of a family, to grow a business, to run a farm, to get ahead.

I will never forget the young mother from Mountain City…whose words spoke to me early on. I had gone to meet with some local business leaders after the closing of the Levi Strauss Factory. I arrived at the meeting spot in Mountain City, and there at the table was a young woman wearing jeans and a t-shirt. I turned to her, and I asked her to tell us her name and why she had come. She stood up; she turned to me and said, “I just lost my job at the factory. I have a family to feed. And I’m here to see how you can help.”

As long as I live, I will not forget those voices of clarity and commonsense that called out and counseled me time and again.

And I will never forget the many patients who met me on the trail in the very beginning, and have continued the journey with me over the years. Owen Barber, Vivian Reeves, Jimmy Moore, Shane Blalock. You taught me that the power in all relationships is trust. You taught me to listen. And that trust and that listening is something I have tried to preserve here in my service in the senate.

The two people who won’t hear me thank them today directly are two who were here at my swearing in but who have since passed on. -- my parents Dorothy and Tommy Frist. They left a great legacy of honesty, civility, fairness, hard work, and service. They passed that legacy to my own brothers and sisters, Mary, Bobby, Dottie, and Tommy, who all in their own way with their children and grandchildren live lives in service to others.

I’ve spent a lot of time these past few weeks reflecting…but I’ve also spent a great deal of time thinking about the future of this institution.

As I prepare to leave here and return to my home, many people have asked me if I regret the promise I made to serve two terms.

’If you knew then, what you know today, would you’ve made that promise?’ they ask.

And my answer is ‘yes.’

I believe today, as I believed when I came here, in the ideal of a citizen legislator. And bittersweet though it might seem today—it is right.

I hope that my service, that the example of someone who had never served before, spent his life pursuing another profession, coming here and rising from 100 in seniority to Majority Leader, the example of a committed doctor who has been able to find purpose and fulfillment in serving others through public service – through elected office will inspire others to seek office. And those that come to serve after me as true citizen legislators will bring fresh perspective and new ideas that will in ways small and large make this country and this institution better.

And you’ve heard me talk about—even champion—term limits.

Today, self-imposed term limits are the extreme exception—not the practice in this city. As a consequence, we are moving toward a body with a two-year vision, governing for the next election — rather than a body with a 20-year vision, governing for the future. As we consider the future of this institution, I urge that we ask ourselves what it is our forefathers envisioned. Is today’s reality what they foresaw?

I urge that we also consider what our work in this Chamber is really all about.

Is it about keeping the Majority? Is it about Red States versus Blue States? Is it about lobbing attacks across the aisle? Is it about war rooms whose purpose is not to contrast ideas but to destroy. Or is it more?

When the Constitutional Convention met in 1787, delegates considered how best to structure the Legislative Branch of America’s new government. And they were determined not to repeat the mistakes of the Articles of Confederation, which had a unicameral legislature.

Speaking to the Convention, Virginia’s James Madison set forth the reasons to have a Senate:

’In order to judge the form to be given to this institution, it will be proper to take a view of the ends to be served by it. These were, first, to protect the people against their rulers; secondly, to protect the people against transient impressions into which they themselves might be led.’

Let us remember this vision of the Senate—that the Framers established the Senate to protect people from their rulers, and as a check on the House and on the passions of the electorate. And let us not allow the passions of the electorate be reflected as destructive partisanship on the floor.

Taking the oath of office commits each Senator to respect and revere the Framers’ dream.

To my successor, Bob Corker, and to all the Senators who will follow me in service to this great nation: I urge you to be bold, to make the most of your time here, look at problems with fresh eyes and steely determination, and give the American people a reason to believe in you and to hope for a better tomorrow.

To serve in this grand institution has been a labor of love. And to lead here has been a challenging responsibility and a profound honor.

In closing, let me leave my colleagues with an image.

It happened in Sudan. It was late at night on the last day of my visit. We had just finished the last operation, when a message came that a man I had met the day before wanted to see me, ‘the American doctor.’

I was tired, but I walked into the one-room building where he was recovering. He was huddled in the corner in a bed, and in the darkness I could barely see him, until I saw his smile—piercing through the shadows.

I asked him what I could do for him.

He told me that two years ago his wife and his two children had been murdered in the war. Eight days ago, he said, ‘I lost my leg and hand to a land mine.’

He thanked me for being there, and I nodded, I get thanked all the time for being a doctor.

Then getting impatient for me to understand, he lifted his bandaged arm—the fingers he had lost fighting for his freedom--he replied, “Everything I’ve lost—my family, my leg, my hand—will be worth the sacrifice if my people can someday have what America represents: freedom.”

’Thank you,’ he said, ‘not for being a doctor, but for being an American.’

To me, that image cuts through to what our work is all about. It is about preserving as best we can that great hope that is America. The freedom, the opportunity, the compassion, the basic decency that lie at the heart of who we are as Americans.

Beyond Democrat or Republican, we are American. And it is our responsibility to uphold the dream and protect that hope…for every American…and for all who seek freedom.

I began my remarks with the acknowledgment that our time is temporary. And I know that pertains to attention spans as well.

So let me close.

As I have spent a lifetime learning, ‘To everything there is a season.’

And today my season in the Senate draws to a close.

Tomorrow is a time for new rhythms.

My dad ended a letter he wrote to the great great grandchildren he’d never see shortly before he died: his words:

’The world is always changing, and that’s a good thing. It’s how you carry yourself in the world that doesn’t change - morality, integrity, warmth and kindness are the same things in 1910 when I was born or in 2010 or later when you will be reading this. And that’s a good thing, too. Love, Granddaddy’

And under the dome, it is a time for fresh faces and fresh resolve. Change is good. Change is constructive.

The Senate changes, the people who serve change, but what doesn’t change is that every one of us who serves believes deeply in the genius of the American democracy.

So, it is with the deepest appreciation that Karyn and I thank you all for 12 wonderful years.

There are no words to describe the honor it has been.