September 9, 2009
What Still Ails America
By Mary Lyon
Okay, full disclosure, up top. Liberal here. Progressive. Especially about the mushrooming health care crisis in this country. I like the idea of a public option. I dislike how hate radio, political partisans, and manipulated tantrum-throwers have spread lies and helped pervert the public discourse about a subject we ALL desperately need to be discussing at length. And with cool heads.
What I secretly yearned to see from President Obama during his speech on health care reform to a Joint Session of Congress was fire and brimstone from his podium directed toward where the Republicans were seated. I longed to hear him declare that their years of bad ideas, bad actions, bad policies, bad judgment, and bad leadership were why they lost last November and that it's time to shut up now.
In that, I guess the President disappointed me a little. But leave it to Barack Obama to point out the real bottom line here. It goes beyond slogans. It goes beyond budgets. It goes beyond corporations and overpaid CEOs. It zooms directly to who we are as Americans, as far as why most of us now feel compelled as a country to address the health insurance crisis. I've written before about "the 'Meaning' of America." What I meant by that was an America I really don't recognize anymore - one that's just, well, nothing less than mean. We are meaner as a people now than I can ever remember, and I've got slightly more than half a century on my sidewalls by now. We are meaner, angrier, more intolerant, more aggressive, more rude, more bullying, and more ready - even eager - to lash out. Our worst addictions as Americans, anymore, aren't drugs or alcohol. We're addicted to attacking each other. To the point where some of us wear firearms to town hall meetings, heckle disabled women in wheelchairs, and bite actual body parts off people.
Leave it to President Obama to wrap up his speech about health care reform in a brief examination of the American character. True. For the love of God, somebody has to say something. Obama, however, did not see America the Mean. He talked about the America we all love and over which we still grow teary-eyed, in which we do not leave those with great need out in the cold. The America he was invoking to propel serious, genuine health insurance reform at long last was the America that's anything BUT mean, the America that won't allow someone to go bankrupt because they got sick. The America to which he was reaching out was the one that would not tolerate leaving even one of us to tell an ailing loved one that "there is help for you out there, but I just can't afford it." That we are mired there now is why we needed to hear Barack Obama speak on this night. It was the Barack Obama we loved best, whose words and stated convictions have stirred us and moved us profoundly and pulled us out of our myopic little selves, again and again. It was the Barack Obama who urged us to look at the biggest big picture, even while one of the smallest in the room thumbed his nose at courtesy and decorum and rudely heckled the President in the middle of the speech. That Barack Obama who rose above such a tasteless affront hopefully has been able to connect again with that part within the rest of us that may not be so very little.
I identified myself clearly and proudly, at the top of this column, as a liberal, a progressive, an unapologetic member of the broad-based collective that worked like crazy all last year (even before that) to make sure Barack Obama won the White House, with healthier majorities to work with in both houses of Congress. We did that to change this country, to change her for the better, to steer her off the disastrous course of the previous administration. We're the ones what brung 'em to the dance. We're the same ones who by now have come down with a serious case of wallflower-itis, watching our beloved dance date spend all his time across the room on those most anxious to trip him on the dance floor, take his car keys, and ditch him. We want his agenda for the healing of America to succeed more than they ever can or will. And that not-so-very-little part of us which Obama reached out to touch again is what's going to have to close this deal on health care reform. We needed our own faith and resolve restored. It was very wise medicine on his part to remind us of who we really are. We need that reminder to keep us motivated as we face a national challenge this great.
When you think about the America we SHOULD be, then it's a no-brainer. Health care for ALL. Nobody's allowed to get rich by keeping you sick or nickel-and-diming you when you need the help the most. This is what we should be caring about. This is what makes us great as Americans - that no one - child, adult, or elder - will be left behind. Heck, this is the very essence of homeland security - feeling secure as you approach something more fearful than terrorism - the fear that illness will render you destitute for whatever time you have left. As Elizabeth Edwards described him, Obama arrived as the only grownup in the room, declaring this will change. Thankfully he didn't keep all his powder dry. He asserted forcefully that the time for bickering is over. He used the "L-word" (lie) to describe, well, a lie about so-called "death panels." He warned that anyone who distorts the truth to scare people into railing against their own best interests would be called out (about time!). And he made it clear, up top, too, that while he's not the first president to confront this country's health care crisis, he's determined to be the last. Fortunately, the Obama who's made me gnash my teeth in the last several months, who seemed content to be repeatedly kicked in the teeth by Republicans and conservative yakkers, wasn't there so much this time.
I liked seeing that Barack Obama again. I liked the lump I felt in my throat again, as he sought to uplift and inspire and lead. I appreciated very much how Ted Kennedy's memory was invoked, his family and still-grieving widow Vicki present as reinforcements. We need that. We need to focus on that. We need to push forward, fueled on that extended combined image of grandeur on display, and yes, ponder the alternative - perhaps embodied in the contrasting nastiness and impropriety of the President's heckler. Maybe that was Obama's main message, even as he debunked the falsehoods and recalled individual worst-case scenarios. To paraphrase an old - and effective - Clinton campaign slogan, it's the character, stupid, despite all the evidence of how much still ails America.