It could be slow answering phones in the office of retiring Republican Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist, so two young staffers invented a game.
They would try to drop silly phrases like “purple spatula” and “peanut butter and jelly” into the conversation when out-of-state residents kept calling back. They scored points, and the loser bought lunch.
“I still remember [making chewing noises] and saying, ‘Oh, I just had a bite of my peanut butter and jelly sandwich,’” says William R. Timmons IV, now a lawmaker himself.
He wouldn’t recommend that today, Timmons wants you to know. But the South Carolina Republican absorbed other lessons too. Watching his boss attend what felt like “90 going-away parties,” he saw the value of making friends across the aisle — something that means even more now that he serves as vice chair of the House Modernization Committee, which suggests ways to fix the legislative branch.
Timmons sat down with CQ Roll Call to talk about his brief stint as a Hill staffer and why he sees himself as an “aspiring statesman.” This interview has been edited and condensed.
Q: How did you end up working for Frist?
A: I graduated from George Washington University in ’06, and I was hoping to get a job on the Hill. My father’s roommate in business school, Barry Banker, was close friends with Frist. He wrote me a recommendation, and I got my foot in the door.
Before Frist hired me, he invited me to a roundtable discussion in the majority leader’s office. There were probably 20 or 25 people, all ages and backgrounds. We got there, and he said, “I do this every now and then when I don’t know what the pulse is on an issue.” He wanted to know what we thought about erecting a fence along the southern border — and this was in 2006. We had a long conversation, and I think at the end of it he was for a more substantial physical barrier.
After that meeting, I was an intern very briefly, and then I was a staff assistant. The agreement was actually that I would shut the office down because he was [retiring soon]. And it was a lot of fun. I enjoyed it.
Q: What was a typical day like for you?
A: I was in the Hart Senate Office Building, which is the ugliest office building, and I sat out front with a guy named Brandon Consolvo, who is actually a lobbyist now. We answered the phones and kind of ran the front office. Frist had a lot of M&Ms and Coke products, so we were constantly restocking everything.
We were kind of bored at times, so we had to entertain ourselves. We had a lot of people calling in about different issues, and if they were from out of state and it was a repeat offender, we played a game. We took a Post-it note, and we would write a word and a point value on there. Then you had to work that word into your conversation, and whoever was losing at lunchtime had to buy lunch. I probably wouldn’t recommend it to many offices, but it was never inappropriate. “Peanut butter and jelly,” “goat farmer” and “purple spatula” were some of the highlights.
“Goat farmer” was a tough one, because it did result in the not ideal outcome of Brandon lying and saying, “You know, Sen. Frist was a goat farmer back in the day.”
Q: What was it like outside of work? Where did you live, and how much did you make?
A: I lived at 15th and I streets, right next to the White House. That’s where I lived in undergrad, so I had an apartment. I actually had a car and drove back and forth, and that made me the person responsible for getting refreshments for the senator. In the eight months I was there, I think he had 90 going-away parties. It was just constant.
I would love to look up and see what I made. I think it was $28,500. I do remember in week three, Jim Hippie, who was the deputy chief of staff, called me into his office. I was like, “S---, I’m gonna get fired.” But he gave me a raise. It was the end of the cycle, and they had all this money left over in their [Members’ Representational Allowance] because everybody was leaving.
I was getting my master’s in international studies while I was on the Hill, so I had class two nights a week at GW.
Q: You were in Frist’s personal office. Did you get to interact with him at all?
A: He was obviously in his leadership office most of the time. When you’re the majority leader, you don’t go to your state office. But he was awesome. And Bono [the lead singer of U2] was there all the time. Bono was very active politically on a number of issues, and he was in the office probably once a month.
We had the autopen — it’s this massive machine, and the senator signs his name once, and then you can put a piece of paper under it, and it moves the pen like he would. But it was not easy to do. Inevitably, “Senator Frist” would get messed up, and it would just look so bad. I actually wasn’t allowed to use the autopen because I kept messing it up.
Q: How does your experience as a staffer inform how you treat your own staffers now?
A: I’ve been on a number of teams; I was a prosecutor, I started a bunch of small businesses. The team mentality is incredibly important. Obviously, you still need some structure, you still need rules, but if everybody’s rowing in the same direction, it goes a lot easier.
We do not use the word “boss” [in my congressional office today]. I’ve had to correct everybody until they stop using it. I’m like, “No. We all have roles, and we’re all on a team.” I don’t think anybody likes having a boss.
Q: For some lawmakers who once worked as staffers, it gave them a lot of respect for Congress as an institution. Do you see yourself as an institutionalist?
A: That word means different things to different people. Being in Sen. Frist’s office, [I saw how] he had incredible relationships with everybody. People would take a shot at him every now and then, but they were all friends. We don’t have that anymore.
When he left, senators gave him farewell statements from the floor, and I remember Ted Kennedy spent an hour talking about how wonderful Bill Frist was, and it just stuck in my head. I was like, “You’re a Democrat. What’s going on here?” Pretty cool.
I do like the term “statesman.” I would say I’m an aspiring statesman. Congress is incredibly important, and we’re doing so poorly right now because of the division, because of the dysfunction. I can’t say this enough: We’ve got to find a way to engage in evidence-based policymaking, done in a collaborative manner, from a position of mutual respect. That’s what we’re supposed to do in Congress.