WASHINGTON — Tap-tap-tap went George W. Bush's feet under his chair in the Old Senate Chamber Wednesday as he waited through a speech by his longtime friend, heart surgeon and one-time majority leader Bill Frist.
The former president, invited for the unveiling of Frist's Senate portrait, shifted in his chair. He crossed his legs. He fidgeted.
"I'll speed it up, Mr. President," Frist said over his shoulder.
Bush joined the distinguished crowd of current and former senators, Cabinet secretaries and aides in a knowing laugh about his famous impatience with official Washington events, even those for friends. But the former president and the physician share more than political party and a policymaking history in Washington at a time of war, terrorist attacks and pitched partisan warfare.
The two could not wait to leave the place — Frist voluntarily in 2007, Bush at the end of his second presidential term, in 2009.
"It takes a really good friend to get me to come back to Washington," Bush told the crowd.
That they were, sons who followed their fathers in their choice of work — Bush in politics and Frist in medicine.
Elected to the Senate in 1994, Frist, 59, was the Bush administration's preferred successor to Majority Leader Trent Lott, who stepped down from his post under fire for comments he had made at Sen. Strom Thurmond's birthday party. And in his book, "Decision Points," Bush wrote that he spent weeks exploring, then rejecting the possibility of replacing Vice President Dick Cheney with Frist on the 2004 presidential ticket.
Bush and Frist know about harboring presidential ambitions. Bush's ambitions produced two terms in the White House from 2001 to 2009, while Frist in 2006 declined to run for president and announced he would return to an already stellar career as a heart surgeon who was also a humanitarian.
Both weathered political storms during their time in Washington.
For Bush, there were questions over the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, harsh interrogations and how his administration was hunting for terrorists on American soil. For Frist, there was Terri Schiavo, the brain-damaged Florida woman whose feeding tube was removed. Frist viewed a videotape of the woman, then publicly questioned the diagnosis of her doctors. An autopsy later confirmed their judgment, not his.
There were victories, too — on tax cuts, late-term abortions and nuclear non-proliferation.
Both men found Washington exasperating.
By the time Frist delivered his farewell speech on the Senate floor, he had long been showing signs of burnout from the haggling and high drama of the unpredictable Senate.
He urged his colleagues to ask themselves a few questions:
"What is it really all about?" Frist said sternly. "Is it about keeping the majority? Is it about red states versus blue? Is it about lobbing attacks in some way across the aisle? ... Is it about war rooms whose purpose is not to contrast ideas but to destroy?
"Or is it more?"
More, Frist told the audience.
The oil portrait, painted by Tennessean Michael Shane Neal, shows Frist leaning on a stately fireplace. Frist told the audience that it really represents an era in the history of an institution that keeps "the pulse of democracy" beating. But it's a better place populated by people who have lived adult lives, serve as legislators for a time — and resume their lives, he said.
After Congress, Frist taught at Princeton and Vanderbilt universities. Bush wrote his book.
And the two worked together again when Frist was named to the board of directors of the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund helping the Caribbean country recover from a massive earthquake last year.1 comment on this story
In Washington Wednesday, the faces of the Bush-Frist era peppered the crowd. Cheney was there. So was Donald Rumsfeld, the defense secretary Bush fired when the war was going badly.
The event was a reunion. But Bush and Frist made clear they're glad to cede business to the current crop of policymakers.
At one point, Frist invited the crowd to gaze upon Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, who are locked in a fierce budget battle.
"The president and I were over there smiling and (having) a good time, while they look kind of sad," Frist said.
"They represent the present," Bush said, grinning widely. "And I represent the past."