Watching the craziness in the Senate this week, as Mitch McConnell and the GOP’s zealots drove their clown car into a brick wall and yet another effort to take away health care coverage from millions crashed and burned, I thought back to a different turn of events.
It was 52 years ago this Sunday — July 30, 1965. Two American presidents celebrated the birth of Medicare, the most significant advance toward national health insurance in America’s history.
I was a White House assistant at the time, working for President Lyndon B. Johnson as he coaxed, cajoled, badgered, buttonholed and maneuvered Congress into enacting Medicare for the aging and Medicaid to help low-income people. For all the public displays over the years of his outsized personae and powers of persuasion, this time he had kept a low profile, working behind the scenes as his legislative team and career health care experts practically lived on Capitol Hill, negotiating with members of Congress and their staffs.
From the White House, LBJ worked the phones; invited senators and representatives singly and collectively in for coffee, drinks or dinner; listened attentively in private to opponents and proponents from interests as varied as business, labor, medicine and religion; and kept in his head a running tally of the fluctuating vote count.
As it had been for decades, it was a tough fight down to the wire. A look back is instructive, not only to show how long it can take to move a legislative dream to reality but also to illustrate how a president with a grasp of history and knowledge of how government works is crucial to making success possible.
In 1935, when President Franklin Roosevelt first tried and failed to get health insurance included as part of Social Security, I was 1 year old and my family was broke. The Great Depression had ended my father’s tenant farming. He took a job for a dollar a day as a laborer on the construction of a highway in southeast Oklahoma.
Earlier, my mother had lost twin girls — one at birth, the other some months later — because the nearest doctor was too far away to arrive in time to help. My parents moved into town. To pay the doctor who delivered me, my father lugged large stones by hand to the site the physician had bought to build his first office. It’s still there.