Erik Schelzig
August 12, 2007
Associated Press Newswires

Since abandoning a widely expected bid for the Republican presidential nomination, former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee has looked toward an unlikely role model for his post-politics career: Al Gore.

Gore, a Tennessee Democrat, has reinvented himself as a relentless environmental campaigner since losing the 2000 presidential election. The former vice president's activism on global warming has included an Academy Award-winning documentary, best-selling books and a worldwide rock concert series to raise awareness about climate change.

"Al Gore has demonstrated what somebody who has a background in politics can accomplish when they are outside of politics," Frist said in an interview with The Associated Press. "He has accomplished 99.9 percent more than he could when he was in politics."

Frist, who was a surgeon before becoming a Republican politician, wants to bring global health issues to the forefront. He is co-chairman of a group encouraging grass roots efforts to urge presidential candidates to focus on global poverty and health issues. He will also be teaching health care policy courses at Princeton, and he's spearheading a major effort by Save the Children to combat infant mortality around the world. He is also writing a book on public service.

Like Gore, Frist said he hopes to give what he considers a neglected issue the public attention it deserves.

"Global warming and health care both affect everybody," he said.

Frist, 55, had no political experience when he beat Democratic Sen. Jim Sasser in 1994, but quickly rose from 100th in seniority to the Senate's top job. Nearing the end of his self-imposed two-term limit in the Senate, Frist said he recognized that his close affiliation with the unpopular Bush administration made a presidential run unlikely to succeed.

"For me being part of the Republican establishment in Washington -- one people are very much down on -- that sent a clear signal that now was not the time," Frist said.

Being the Republican leader also forced him to be more partisan than he sometimes might have preferred, he said.

"When you're elected to be leader, your colleagues elect you to be political," Frist said. "You have to reflect the center of gravity of that group, and it can take some sharp edges to be very effective," he said.

Now that he's shed his official role, Frist said he's relieved to be removed from the everyday political gridlock in Congress.

"The way things are now between the Democrats and the Republicans, they won't accomplish anything over the next three years," he said. "For the surgeon in me who wants to fix things, the next years would have been miserable."

But that doesn't mean Frist is now politics-free. He still gathers money for political contributions both nationally and in Tennessee, and makes regular posts on his blog about conservative issues.

While some have speculated that he may be positioning himself for the 2010 gubernatorial race in Tennessee, Frist said he hasn't given it much serious thought.

"I just don't know," he said. "It's a long way off. My life moves very quickly."

Frist said he will evaluate the impact of his health care advocacy work after a couple years before deciding his immediate political future.

In the meantime, he said, he will work to help improve the country's diplomatic relations with the rest of the world through health policy. America's standing in Africa is higher than most other parts of the world because of the country's participation in health care efforts there, he said.

"If you just saved someone's child's life, they're not going to want to got to war with you," Frist said. "If people have hope in life, they stop fighting."