July 2009: Nobody asked me, but…

Universal health care and American history, Cronkite’s many sides, Anthony Blunt the hollow man, and other observations

With an acknowledgment to the late, great New York newspaper columnist Jimmy Cannon for borrowing his signature phrase: nobody asked me, but…

OUR FRONTIER HERITAGE EXPLAINS, IN PART, WHY AMERICANS HAVE BALKED AT UNIVERSAL HEALTH CARE SCHEMES, whether proposed by President Harry S Truman in 1945, Bill and Hillary Clinton in 1993, or Barack Obama in 2009. (One irony of history is that Richard Nixon’s vision of private-public universal health coverage, proposed in 1974, garnered bipartisan support but was derailed by Watergate.)

A national identity founded on rugged individualism has translated into a reluctance to embrace programs aimed at collective welfare, even during periods of crisis. Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal positioning of Social Security as, in effect, a government-backed individual retirement account (rather than a transfer payment program for the elderly) was a recognition of that reality.

It is this uniquely American emphasis on individual liberty, coupled with uneasiness about centralizing power in the federal government, that makes passing health care reform so difficult. While it’s true that the Feds currently control between 35% and 45% of what’s spent on health care in the United States through Medicare, Medicaid, etc., the idea of further expanding that power (what the Obama plan’s town hall critics have been labeling “socialism”) runs counter to a national identity founded on self-reliance and personal freedom. For now, many Americans (if you believe the public opinion polls) prefer to see power dispersed among many interests (insurance companies, doctors, trial lawyers, Big Pharma) rather than concentrated in the hands of an all-powerful government.

There are less centralized ways to move closer to universal coverage. (Whether 97% or 98% coverage is close enough is another question). The idea of decoupling health insurance from employment and establishing individual portable health insurance accounts (with contributions from the employer, the individual, and the government) seems much more in keeping with American traditions. John Mackey of Whole Foods recently made the case in the Wall Street Journal for altering the tax code so that that employer-provided health insurance and individually-owned health insurance enjoy the same tax benefits. Properly constructed, such an approach could also introduce true competition into the health insurance marketplace and lower costs (see Geico’s impact on car insurance rates as an example of how competition can work to drop prices).

THE “BEER SUMMIT” AND “BIRTHERISM” PROVIDED A MEDIA-CIRCUS DIVERSION from the political struggles over ObamaCare in July. The confrontation between Harvard professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates Jr. and Cambridge police officer James Crowley that led to the White House sit-down had great cable news appeal: black versus white, town versus gown, working class versus upper class, Boston Irish versus Black Irish (Gates has traced his white heritage back to Ireland, and is distantly related to Crowley!).

President Obama’s involvement insured that the dispute took on much greater significance than it deserved by linking it to racial profiling. Since Crowley and Gates dispute what they said to each other, it’s impossible to say whether race played a part. Certainly Crowley’s decision to arrest Gates was an overreaction to what was, most likely, Gate’s overreaction to being asked for identification while standing in his own front parlor. The most fascinating question: did Gates actually say “Ya, I’ll speak with your mama outside“?

Meanwhile a ragtag group of right-wingers, the Birthers, had their moment in the sun, courtesy of CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who helped them tout their bizarre theory—that Barack Obama was born in Kenya not Hawaii and therefore constitutionally ineligible to be president. Throughly debunked in 2008, this conspiracy theory proved irresistible for cable news executives hungry for controversy-driven ratings and liberal Democrats looking to connect the Republicans to the crackpot strain of the radical right. The Birthers share a culture of conspiracy with the 9/11 Truthers and JFK assassination Buffs, a topic I’ve addressed at greater length at the Washington Decoded website (“Birthers, Truthers, and Buffs: The Paranoid Style.”)

BROADCASTER WALTER CRONKITE, A JOURNALISTIC LEGEND OF THE OLD SCHOOL, died on July 17 and his obituaries revealed a much more complex and interesting figure than you’d imagine for America’s Anchorman. Cronkite might actually have deserved the title of “The Most Interesting Man in the World.”

For example, Cronkite’s impoverished Depression childhood included eating hamburgers his mother made from dog food. In the 1950s, he hosted CBS’s The Morning Show with a puppet (Charlemagne the Lion). He was a college drop-out. He swapped off-color jokes with Ronald Reagan and considered Dwight Eisenhower a hero. He liked scotch and cigars, dancing, and playing practical jokes. He flew on B-17 combat missions. According to Edward Alwood in the Washington Post, Cronkite “became a behind-the-scenes ally” of the gay liberation movement. An avid sailor later in life, he had been an aspiring race car driver in the 1950s, participating in the 12 Hours of Sebring in 1959. He helped nudge along peace between Israel and Egypt.

In short, “Uncle Walter” crammed an amazing amount of living in his 92 years on this planet.

IN ANTHONY BLUNT’S POSTHUMOUSLY RELEASED MEMOIR, ENGLAND’s “FOURTH MAN” expressed scant remorse for spying for the Soviets for some three decades and betraying Queen and Country. As Ben Macintyre noted in The Times of London, Blunt’s manuscript is “remarkable for what it does not reveal. Blunt does not go into detail about his own spying activities, or the consequences for others of his actions.”

Blunt should have been called “The Hollow Man,” not the “Fourth Man,” for his careerism and narcissism. When his espionage on behalf of the Soviet was discovered by British counterintelligence, Blunt struck a deal with the authorities so he could stay in England and continue his career as an art historian. (“I realised quite clearly that I would take any risk in this country, rather than go to Russia.”) Not until 1979, when Margaret Thatcher exposed Blunt’s treason and the Queen stripped him of his knighthood, did Britons learn of his double-dealing.

PLENTY OF REMORSE IN RED SOX NATION AS BOSTON HERO DAVID “BIG PAPI” ORTIZ was implicated in baseball’s steroid scandal when it became known that his name had appeared on a list of players who tested positive for doping in 2003. Ortiz denied using steroids, but apologized for the distraction and acknowledged being “careless” in using supplements and vitamins which may have caused positive test results. Baseball fans continue to wonder, however, whether any of the records set or championships won during the Asterisk Era should be considered authentic. A sad day in Mudville…

THIS MONTH’S WORDS OF WISDOM FROM AMERICAN RABBI AND THEOLOGIAN ABRAHAM JOSHUA HESCHEL (1907-1972): “Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.”

Copyright © 2009 Jefferson Flanders