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
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
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
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
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.”