Friday, August 28, 2009

Ted Kennedy: The End of an Era

Conservative Brother

(Liberal sister, I think we may actually agree on something else here.)

In centuries past, it was sometimes tradition among kings and generals who were victorious on the field of battle to pause and pay tribute to the bravery of their fallen opponents. Yes, it could have been perceived as a slight dig at their foe (a "we won and you didn't" moment), but as a whole it was a symbol of respect for the valor and accomplishments of their vanquished enemy. By no means am I trying to put myself on the level of a Caesar or a Napoleon as any sort of winner on the battlefield, nor have I come out victorious (that I'm aware of) in anything of any significance recently. But with the passing of Senator Ted Kennedy earlier this week, I do want to take a moment to show my respect for the accomplishments of the Lion of the Senate.

Kennedy was the sort of elected official who comes along only once or twice in a lifetime, one who was defined by his (in this case) liberal ideology and was used by the Republican Party as the centerpiece of many a campaign fundraising brochure - but who, at the end of the day, could (as highlighted in a great piece in the Washington Times) after a day of fighting his colleagues across the aisle join them for a beer. In fact, I'm beginning to think it was a pattern among Massachusetts Democrats of Irish descent to fight one minute and toast the next; Tip O'Neill was another great example of this sort of throwback politician, one who could lambaste Ronald Reagan for eight hours and in the ninth hour join him to raise a pint.

But Kennedy's career wasn't always defined by simply opposing Republicans. In the same Times story (which you can read in its entirety here), Joseph Curl laid out an impressive list of times where the Lion worked with colleagues from across the aisle to forge bipartisan deals on significant legislation: the Americans With Disabilities Act (with Bob Dole); the Mental Health Parity Act (with Pete Domenici); the Ryan White AIDS Act (with Orrin Hatch); and the No Child Left Behind Act (with President George W. Bush), among many others. And the significant accomplishment of Civil Rights legislation in the 1960s was a watershed moment not just for Kennedy and his colleagues, but for the entire nation.

His passing comes at a time where many would say his voice and his leadership were definitely needed, with health care reform legislation again at the fore. I agree something needs to be done, although I'm not convinced that the current bill is the right way to go. (Side bar: Republicans cannot be called the party of no necessarily with this bill, as they don't have the majority anywhere; could the Democrats find some unity, they could pass it on their own. Additionally, those who say the Republicans aren't offering any suggestions of their own are conveniently ignoring the reform legislation they have introduced in recent years - and which has been ignored by the current leadership because it doesn't go far enough. The way things with the Democrats are imploding at this point, their bill won't go far enough for most, either. End side bar.) However, following his brush with death in the plane crash of the 1960s, Kennedy made health care reform his major cause. Whether you are Republican or Democrat, there is no disputing the fact that his voice was - and will be - missed throughout this debate, and as someone who could bring folks together from opposite sides of the room and make agreements stick his leadership may have made the difference.

But I won't use my half of this post to debate legislation or who is right and who is wrong in the current political environment. I also won't drag up all of the problems Kennedy had in his life and the tragedy that he experienced; everyone has problems, everyone has screwed up, and everyone at some point will experience tragedy. What I will do is say "thank you" for representing a bygone age of politics, one in which disputes were left at the door and folks at the end of the day could still be civil with each other. "Thank you" for recognizing that a party didn't have to do everything alone, and that there was a time and a place for compromise and cooperation. Sadly, many of today's politicians seem to have forgotten what they can do in order to focus on what they think they should be doing.

When Barack Obama was running for president in 2008 and appeared at American University the day he was officially endorsed by Ted Kennedy, I was in attendance for no other reason than to witness a historic moment (and to get a sample of the Obama hype I had been hearing about). Like Obama or not, it was an important day - and Kennedy was in his element; he was commanding, he was uplifting (for the Obama supporters), and he definitely did his part to rally the troops. It was the only time in my life I saw Kennedy in person (even with all of the time I worked on Capitol Hill), and after news of his passing it has taken on an entirely new significance.

His family, his friends, and his constituents are mourning the loss of a father, uncle, grandfather, supporter, and advocate. More than the man, though, I am mourning the era that has passed away with his death.

Liberal Sister

Three weeks ago, my mother came to visit me and I showed her the brilliant HBO documentary "Teddy: In His Own Words". I had seen it maybe 4 times at that point, but I wanted to share the experience with my mother, who had lived through the majority of the events covered in the film. About thirty minutes into the film, my mother was in tears, and she continued to choke up until the documentary was over. I realized that, for the two of us, the film meant two different things. For me, it was a deeper education of a man who had long stood in the shadow of his brothers. For my mother, it was a retrospective of the beauty and tragedy of America's most famous family, and a reminder not only of all that could have been, but what was.

I grew up with an understanding of Jack and Bobby - of what they had done and who they were, of what they meant to my mother and to the nation - a knowledge of where my parents were when they learned of Jack's and Bobby's deaths, and a sense of pride in knowing that my father drove to Washington, D.C. to join the long line of mourners who filed solemnly past the President's coffin. In all the years, however, I had never heard much mention of Teddy from my parents. As I got older, however, and became more interested in politics and all things Liberal, I gravitated toward Teddy, mesmerized by his words, captivated by his passion, and in awe of his dedication to fulfilling a promise to America that his brothers had made.

For me, Teddy Kennedy is my one link to the days of Camelot, and as romanticized and dreamy as those days were to so many, I have always been more interested in what Teddy himself had done in his lifetime, as I was directly impacted by his work. My brother mentioned some of his bipartisan legislation earlier, but I will attempt to sum up the man by saying this: in the last 40 years, no one has done more for the causes of civil rights, women's rights, the rights of the disabled, and the rights of the poor and disenfranchised than Ted Kennedy. He fought for more than thirty years for Health Care Reform, was instrumental in lowering the voting age to 18, had great concern about the care given to veterans, and he worked to provide aid to refugees from war-torn countries. As so many have stated since his passing, he was born into a life of privilege, but dedicated his life to being a champion of the voiceless, the less fortunate, and the forgotten.

It is nearly impossible to put into words the legacy of this great man, and I am certainly incapable of doing so in this forum. I will only say that, whether or not one agreed with his ideology, Ted Kennedy is a man to whom respect must be shown. Too often his failings and self-admitted regrets were used as a rallying cry for his detractors, but his is a life that must be examined in its entirety. Like him or not, history will undoubtedly remember him as the greatest Senator of the 20th century and as a man who devoted his entire life to serving the country he loved so well.

I think all Americans can take pride in that.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Birth Certificates and Death Panels: Panic! At The Townhall

Point: Liberal Sister

A storm has been brewing in America for the last several weeks - not the typical summer storm we're used to that passes over with relative quickness, but rather a tumult with an ever-broadening reach and increasing strength. This storm is located directly above each and every town hall meeting held by members of Congress on what can only be described as the "Glutton for Punishment Tour," and forecasters have yet to predict when the skies will clear. This storm has two very loud arguments fueling it - birth and death. At issue, the legitimacy of President Obama's birth certificate and U.S. citizenship, and the Sarah Palin-dubbed "Death Panels" that many people seem to think are mentioned in the current Health Care Reform Bill that is before the House. These issues have whipped a great number of people into a frenzy, but why? Even some Republicans will tell you that these arguments are baseless, which one would hope might keep the debates more focused and even-keeled, but unfortunately, the opposite has happened. Which leads me to wonder, why isn't anyone listening?

1. The Birth Certificate! When I first heard about people questioning Obama's citizenship, I thought it was a ridiculous argument that would never build momentum. I would have been right if the Democrats had been able to do something that they very rarely do - nip silly ideas in the bud before they are even able to gain traction. Of course they failed to do so during the 2004 Presidential Campaign, when John Kerry's credibility was attacked by the Swift-Boaters, who managed to convince a great number of people that Kerry was not, in fact, a Vietnam War hero, even though we all knew that he was. The Democrats laughed at the attack ads instead of putting the kibosh on them definitively and with immediacy.

The Democrats seem to think that these attacks, that serve no other purpose than to plant seeds of doubt and fear in those who fail to do their own research, are nothing more than minor annoyances, when the opposite is true. When allowed to fester, these attacks become very real in the minds of some citizens, who often become blinded to the truth. As far as Obama is concerned, I have heard some people question his citizenship based solely on his father's Kenyan citizenship. If that alone were the argument, then only Native Americans would have ever been eligible for office, as 99% of us are the children of immigrants. Of course then there is the argument that President Obama was born in Kenya, complete with a falsified birth certificate (copied from one belonging to an Australian citizen) touted by Dentist/Real Estate Agent/Lawyer/One-Doughnut-Shy-of-a-Dozen Orly Taitz. In my opinion, any genuine argument that the so-called "Birthers" may have ever come up with was destroyed the second Taitz declared herself to be the voice of the argument.

To anyone who questions Obama's birth in Hawaii on August 4th 1961, I submit the birth announcements found in two Hawaiian newspapers. If those aren't legitimate, then I have fallen victim to the most elaborate 48-year-old plot that hinged solely on the idea that maybe, one day, Barry Obama would be elected to the Presidency. Additionally, many people are demanding that Obama release his birth certificate and are baffled by his refusal to do so. Did it ever occur to those folks that maybe he hasn't addressed the issue because it is insane? To this blogger, I think the real issue driving the Birther Movement has less to do with actually questioning his citizenship, and more to do with a disapproval of his policies and desire to find something - anything - to disqualify him as President.

2. Death Panels! First of all, shame on you, Sarah Palin. With one tweet of your hand, you created a maelstrom of epic proportions. Her usage of the phrase "death panel" played off of the fear and confusion that many Americans were already feeling in regards to Health Care and from what I can see, she must be pretty pleased with herself. (2012 Platform Suggestion for Ms. Palin: Vote for Sarah Palin and live!)

As everyone knows by now (or should know), the Health Care Bill before the House has no mention of "Death Panels", and no provision saying "We will send all old people into the woods to give up their ghosts." There is mention of end-of-life counseling and preparation, but certainly nothing alluding to Death by Firing Squad for Gramma and PaPaw. The Death Panel tactic serves only to scare and enrage, and that is shameful. Furthermore, it takes away from the real debate - U.S. Health Care as it exists now is heavily flawed, controlled by very wealthy lobbyists, and showing no signs of becoming magically less-expensive. Who wouldn't want a change?

Personally, I have my own private insurance plan. However, in the last few years I had to switch to a plan with less coverage and higher deductibles because my premium sky-rocketed to an amount that was higher than my car payment. I have been fortunate enough to be fairly healthy, and only use my insurance for annual check-ups. But what about people who have insurance and are very sick? What about the people who can't even afford the bare minimum of coverage? What are they to do?

I have heard the argument that the Haves are unwilling to pay taxes to insure the Have-Nots. Also the word "socialism" gets thrown around a lot, with digs at socialized care in Canada, France, and England. If people are afraid of socialized programs, why isn't anyone demanding that our public education system and police departments be done away with?

But I'm getting sidetracked. Back to DEATH PANELS! Anyone who has health insurance, particularly anyone who has had a terminally ill loved one, will tell you that death panels exist right now in our corrupt insurance system. Who do you think disallows procedures like life-saving surgery or chemotherapy if they consider it to be an unnecessary procedure? How many of us have had loved ones pass away while stuck in insurance limbo?

If people want to disrupt town hall meetings, that is certainly within their rights. I know the First Amendment has been tossed around quite a bit this summer, most often by Conservatives who wonder why, when they protest, they are called crazy instead of exercisers of their right to free speech. Many wonder why no one called the members of Code Pink crazy and disruptive when they shouted during Congressional meetings. If you ask me, shouting on either side of the aisle is unproductive. Instead of buying into propaganda and believing whatever panic-inducing nonsense Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck spout, I think everyone needs to take a deep, calming breath and proceed in a respectful and orderly fashion (and that goes for Democrats AND Republicans). And if that doesn't work, take matters into your own hands the old fashioned way - get out and VOTE.

Counterpoint: Conservative Brother

Having attended town meetings for a number of years as a congressional staffer, I have had experience with vocal constituents - and the occasional crazies - who showed up to (for lack of a better term) "make their views known and their voices heard." Now, in my life away from the town meeting realm, I most certainly feel a tremendous sense of relief that I'm not involved in the chaos that we're seeing in cities and towns around the country.

I agree in large part with what you've said here, particularly on the issue of the "birthers." Yes, conspiracy theories are great and entertaining - we didn't land on the moon, there were CIA sharpshooters in the sewer at Dealey Plaza in Dallas, there's an alien army on standby at Area 51 - but this one is pretty far-fetched. You're exactly right that Obama's parents AND the State of Hawaii AND the newspapers in Honolulu (and perhaps even the government of Kenya) would have all had to decide before he was born, "This man will one day be President of the United States - let's make sure we've got our bases covered and that he is in fact an American citizen. Frankie, you post the fake listings in the paper. Johnny, get going on the fake birth certificate (and make sure the International Paper watermark doesn't show up). Benny, make sure all of the maternity ward doctors and nurses are 'on board' with our objectives here. And Joon, get to work on the college transcripts now."

Enough, folks! If Republicans and Democrats are going to focus on things like this and lose sight of the bigger picture - and much more important issues - like cap-and-trade and health care reform and labor unionizing legislation, then what's the use in even being part of the debate? If a football team is more concerned about the guy in Section FF, Row 33, Seat 12 and whether he bought a ticket legitimately through the box office or whether it's a fake bought by a scalper, they're going to lose the game.

Health care is a similar issue, and I agree that throwing around the phrase "death panel" was a horrible miscalculation on someone's part. Yes, it succeeded in getting the conservative base revved up again, and as a result the poll numbers have turned sharply in recent days to a majority of folks being opposed to reform. But now that the Senate Finance Committee is going to remove this provision on end-of-life-consultation, what now? What will the next thing be to get folks, as Gretchen Wilson would say, "all jacked up"?

I think people should be entitled to health care; I don't think it is a right - and in this sense I suppose I'm a strict constructionist - but there's no reason that we shouldn't be able to provide it. 48 million people without access to health care is a travesty; we as a nation should expect better of ourselves and "love our neighbors as ourselves" - expecting that the poor family with eight kids should get the same access to a doctor as me and my family or any other middle- or upper-class family.

Do I think this bill is the answer? Well, it's hard to say, since there is no final bill yet; three versions in the House of Representatives have yet to be rolled together, and there aren't even two bills in the Senate yet to roll together. Do I think the government should be involved in managing care? Of course not. Do I want my taxes to go up to pay for someone else? Of course not. Do I think jamming something down our throat is the answer? No.

I have many friends who contend that the United States has wasted too much time on this, and that this isn't a rush job since nothing has been done in the past 40 years. I agree that four decades is a lot of time to waste when we could have been looking at meaningful ways to provide health care reform (and while we're at it, keep Medicare and Social Security from going broke). Unfortunately, it seemed to be the sexier thing to do to fight things and win political points than pass something good and meaningful and bipartisan and win statesmanship points. On the flip side, though, drafting bills and shoving them through committees and to the floor as quickly as possible also isn't the answer.

In the long run, neither is screaming at your congressman or flipping the bird at your senator. Yes, it makes for great television, and like cussing out the driver who just cut you off on the highway it gives you a good release. But it's not constructive. If you're going to go to a town meeting and scream, make it over something useful; some of the folks I've seen on television are doing so, and because of the age of many of them I hardly find them to be part of some vast organized campaign to derail this legislation. If all you're going to do, however, is yell and stomp your feet about birth certificates and doctors killing you, you're not contributing to any meaningful debate.

The room for that is reserved at Area 51.