Columns » John Brummett

Indelicacy + nonsense = health care debate


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Mike Huckabee wrote on his political action committee's blog on Monday that journalism is dead. He proclaimed this death because he didn't like the coverage he got a couple of weeks ago for saying that President Obama's health care bill would have dismissed Ted Kennedy to go home and take a pain pill for his brain cancer and just die already.

Of course Obama doesn't have a health care bill of his own. And nothing in any of the principles he has outlined would preclude a patient with a brain tumor from getting whatever surgery and treatment he and his insurer could afford. Nothing in any of the five pending congressional Democratic bills would preclude that either.

Beyond that, there are two main problems with Huckabee's announcement of journalism's death. One is that journalism is vast and hard to define anymore, encompassing bloggers like Huckabee himself to tweeters like Huckabee himself to Fox News Republicans like Huckabee himself to right-wing talk radio bloviators like Huckabee himself.

It's dubious to say that a profession can be dead while it writhes from growing pains in the very frontier of its reinvention. And surely the Huckster was not intending to euthanize his own journalistic self.

The other problem is that, even if journalism were dead, it hardly would have resulted from the fact that journalists reported what Huckabee said. This little flare-up provides an excellent opportunity to follow my column last week on doctors being mad at Obama. It illustrates, as did that affair, that this health care debate has been beset by ill-advised statements and by overly dramatic misunderstandings or mishearings of ill-advised comments.

Again, it got started with an under-performing Obama. He is not nearly so good extemporaneously as he is in a formally prepared address.

He held a town hall meeting on health care in the White House for ABC and answered questions, especially one, quite horribly.

A woman told him about her mother of more than a hundred years of age and how one doctor didn't want to implant a pacemaker in a person of that age.

But the questioner said her mother was filled with joi de vivre. The woman wondered, then, if there could be some consideration given to the human spirit, to the will to live and joy thereof, in making such decisions.

All in the world Obama needed to say in response — and Bill Clinton would have said this in a fraction of a second — was that, of course, we must consider, indeed honor, such spirit. And that God surely blesses this great woman of such accomplished age. And that nothing in the bill would ever dare get between a doctor and his long-lasting patient in that way. And that we're trying to extend health insurance and make it less expensive, not become the physicians ourselves.

But, instead, Obama went off about we pay for too many needless procedures in our system of medical care. And then, as I quote to my considerable dismay, he said, “Maybe sometimes you're better off not having surgery, but taking the pain killer.”

What he said was absolutely right, though wholly indelicate and ill-advised when the question had to with a life-loving mother of more than a hundred years of age. It might be that your shoulder is a mess of bone spurs, inflammation and frayed tendons. It might be that, if you're, oh, 70 years old, you could get by with a cortisone shot or two to relieve the pain and inflammation. Surgery might be too arduous for you, and, anyway, those kinds of surgical repairs with their strenuous post-operative physical therapies are better-suited for active younger people still wanting to do such things as play tennis or yank a lawnmower rope.

But Obama did not say that old people generally ought to be sent home to take a pain pill and die. Yet the ineptitude with which he said what he said in the context in which the matter arose lent itself to the cynical exploitation of a new-journalist demagogue like Huckabee spouting his glib and irresponsibly simplistic rhetoric.

So for today, as part of my continuing quest for a more tolerant and thoughtful health care debate, I call on Barack Obama to get smarter and for Mike Huckabee to go back to a small Baptist congregation where his simpleton glibness can do less damage.


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