Chesterton Tribune

Mr. Smith goes to Washington: CHS grad on Senate leader's staff

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By KEVIN NEVERS

He was raised in Duneland, spent a lot of great days as a kid at the farm of Hazel and Joe Peterman in Jackson Township, showed dairy cows for eight years in 4-H.

He wants to be a teacher and a farmer.

For now, though, he’s gone and gotten himself mixed up in politics.

You may have seen him quoted in the national papers a few weeks ago, when his boss caused gnashing and wailing across the land by threatening to push the nuclear button to end the filibustering of President Bush’s judicial nominees.

Nick Smith, Chesterton High School Class of 1990, is the deputy communications director and deputy chief of staff for U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., M.D. He’s been on Frist’s staff for eight years, after spending two years odd-jobbing for Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., and while the placid fields of the Peterman farm may seem surreally removed from the Beltway fray, Smith did not go to Washington unprepared.

He was, after all, a CHS debater.

“It was a great thing,” Smith says. “My dad insisted that we participate—my brothers and I—in speech and debate. Later on we came to realize how valuable it was.”

Debate may have struck Smith at the time as a bit wonkish. Learning issues on the fly. Toting up the evidence. Trotting out the arguments. Now those sorts of things are just part of the job on Capitol Hill.

In any case, Smith says, debate served him well in college. He earned a B.A. at Penn State in international politics with a double minor in geography and history: the gold-standard degree for a Congressional staffer.

Yet, on graduating, Smith seemed to come perilously close to drifting. He took a job in Indianapolis at a publishing house and might have been there still—reading copy and editing textbooks—had he not celebrated a New Year’s Eve in D.C. with a couple of college buddies. One of them was interning for a Congressman, and at some point during a tour of the Capitol Smith made a decision. “I realized that was where my passion lies,” he says. “My family was always interested in politics.”

So Smith returned to Indy, quit his job, packed three suitcases, and dropped $39 on a one-way ticket to Washington on Southwest Air. He spent the next two months flopping on a friend’s couch by night and wandering the halls of Congress by day looking for a gig. He finally found one, in Specter’s office. A couple of years later, when a colleague joined Frist’s staff and had nothing but good things to say about the man from Tennessee, Smith made the move too.

He’s never had reason to regret it. Staffers, Smith says, “tend to gravitate to folks whose values they share,” and his fit with Frist is a natural one. “He’s constantly pushing the envelope on so many issues. . . . And I love the issues we’re dealing with. We’re making a difference.”

Take Medicare prescription drug coverage. Smith saw the whole thing happen, prodded and pushed by Frist, from the give-and-take on the floor to the legislation which “for the first time give seniors access to prescription drugs through Medicare,” and when it was done Smith knew that he’d been a witness to something cool. “It was probably one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had in Washington,” he says.

Smith, however, isn’t always in Washington. Frist—not surprisingly, as a physician—takes a personal interest in the global problem of HIV/AIDS and regularly travels to Africa to do medical mission work. On two occasions Smith accompanied him and on one of them had the privilege of watching Frist perform surgery at a hospital in Kenya. “It was an amazing opportunity I otherwise wouldn’t have had,” he says. Smith has also accompanied Frist to Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, and Egypt, where the Majority Leader had talks with Sharon, Abbas, and Mubarak. History in the making, and for the taking.

As Frist’s deputy communications director, of course, Smith has the perhaps unenviable job of dealing with the media. “Our responsibility is to respond to reporters,” he says tactfully, the whole swarm of them, and on the day after the Gang of 14, amid much backslapping, defused the nuclear threat, a Chesterton Tribune reporter was simply unable to get a line into Frist’s office.

Frist practiced medicine for 20 years before entering the Senate, and when he did he vowed to limit his terms to two. His second is up at the end of 2006. Smith, meanwhile, has something of his own term limit in mind. In 10 years, he says, “I’d love to be teaching and have a small farm. I want to take my hands-on experience and show in the classroom truly how our government works.”

Washington, Smith concedes, can be a strange place. He marvels at the frequency with which “irrationality can take hold to a point where folks aren’t even willing to talk,” while “the media get caught up in the littlest detail which, if you were to ask, the average American couldn’t care less about.”

So when the Beltway threatens to suck him into its vortex, Smith returns to his roots and has a chat with Hazel and Joe in Jackson Township. “They always remind me of the important things,” he says. “The phone calls I value most are the phone calls I get from the Petermans. They make me homesick.”

 

Posted 6/9/2005