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When a President Lies: Why Linda Douglass Should Resign

The Vietnamization of the health care debate: White House aide defends untruth.

By 8.11.09

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And the Arthur Sylvester Award for Lying in Service to the Government goes to…Linda Douglass, the Obama communications director for the White House Office of Health Care Reform.

Who was Arthur Sylvester and for what did Ms. Douglass, a former ABC News reporter, win this dubious award?

Arthur Sylvester was once the one-man Washington bureau for the Newark Evening News, a prominent New Jersey newspaper that folded in the early 1970s. He had the good fortune to be one of a handful of journalists covering an underdog presidential candidate in the early stages of a presidential race, when access to the candidate was free and easy -- long before the days of Secret Service coverage, mammoth staffs and 24/7 cable TV news cycles.

So it was possible for Arthur Sylvester in 1960 to get significant face time with the candidate, a Massachusetts senator named John F. Kennedy. JFK remembered, and as the New Frontier and its Band of Brothers gathered in Washington in 1961, Arthur Sylvester stepped up to glory wearing the new title of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. His new boss: the aptly named and now recently deceased Secretary of Defense Robert Strange McNamara.

Mr. McNamara, as has been recounted all over again with his passing, was one of the architects of America's Vietnam policy. Mr. Sylvester, the Linda Douglass of his day, was charged with explaining that policy to the journalists covering McNamara and the Pentagon, not to mention to the American people.

Alas, as the American people would slowly -- very slowly -- discover, the Vietnam policy being implemented by Mr. McNamara and JFK's self-esteemed team of "the best and the brightest" was one of the worst debacles in American history. One of the reasons it took so much time to understand what was going on was that Mr. Sylvester (among others) was being less than forthcoming about what was actually happening as the policy moved along the track.

Sylvester's role in all of this was immortalized in the 1972 bestselling book that begat the term, The Best and The Brightest. The book was a searing indictment by Pulitzer Prize-winning liberal journalist David Halberstam of all the "best and the brightest" who populated American liberalism in its governing heyday. The story was a meticulous tick-tock of those supposedly brainy liberals -- the "whiz kids" as they were called in the moment -- who flocked to Washington and wound up creating the bloody disaster of Vietnam policy that would define the Kennedy-Johnson era in American and world history. Or, as Halberstam himself said in a phrase that is an eerily appropriate assessment of the Obama-ites now trying to get control of one-seventh of the American economy, they were arrogantly devising and executing "brilliant policies that defied common sense."

Sylvester's job was to sell the whiz kids' Vietnam policy to Americans in precisely the way Ms. Douglass is assigned to sell the Obama health care plan today. The problem? Let's let Mr. Halberstam describe it:

In Saigon…Arthur Sylvester, McNamara's press officer, was arguing with a young New York Times reporter named Jack Langguth over the government's lack of credibility in its Vietnam statements. Sylvester said that although it was unfortunate, there were times when a government official had to lie, but that he, Sylvester, as a former newsman, had a genuine objection to lying. Langguth answered that if you had a real objection to lying, you would quit, and the failure to resign meant that you had a soft job where you could exercise power, and that your principles were secondary. Sylvester looked at him almost shocked."If you believe that, you're stupid and naïve, (said Sylvester) and you didn't seem that way at lunch earlier today."

On another occasion, Sylvester was even more succinct:

"Look, if you think any American official is going to tell you the truth, than you're stupid. Did you hear that? -- Stupid."

On still another occasion, Sylvester asserted a "right" that most observers did not see in the Constitution: "the inherent right of the government to lie."

Mr. Sylvester's infamous tenure comes to mind as Ms. Douglass has put herself front and center to challenge video clips of her boss that have appeared on Breitbart.com TV ("SEIU Health Care Forum 3/24/07"). Contrary to the President's new fable that his health care program is designed to preserve the right of Americans to keep their own private health care insurance, he is pictured pre-presidency saying something quite different.

Here is Obama speaking to the Service Employee International Union in 2007. As all can see from this once buried treasure now on Breitbart, it shows candidate Obama saying: "My commitment is to make sure that we've got universal health care for all Americans by the end of my first term as president….I don't think we're going to be able to eliminate employer coverage immediately. There's going to be, potentially, some transition process: I can envision a decade out, or 15 years out, or 20 years out."

Shown as well on this tape is Obama saying at an AFL-CIO conclave: "I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan…that's what I'd like to see." There are others on the tape, but they are members of Congress and while they are saying the same thing as the President in fairness they are not Ms. Douglass's responsibility.

What is her responsibility is to accurately and truthfully tell the American people what the President and his staff are really about, what their goals are, what they are doing and why they are doing it.

In response to the discovery of tapes showing candidate Obama explain exactly what his goals are in health care policy, Ms. Douglass answers with a White House video of her own. She says that the idea we have just seen Mr. Obama say exactly what he said with our own eyes is just not so. In fact, "nothing could be farther from the truth."

What does Obama say in the Douglass video? He says: "Here's the guarantee that I've made. If you have insurance that you like then you will be able to keep that insurance. If you've got a doctor that you like you will be able to keep your doctor. Nobody is trying to change what works in the system. We are trying to change what doesn't work in the system."

Now.

Notice the central untruth here. On the one tape, unedited and not shown by Douglass Obama says:

"I don't think we're going to be able to eliminate employer coverage immediately. There's going to be, potentially, some transition process: I can envision a decade out, or 15 years out, or 20 years out."

Yet Douglass shows him saying something quite different:

"If you have insurance that you like then you will be able to keep that insurance….Nobody is trying to change what works in the system."

In other words, back in the days when the presumed-Democratic nominee was Hillary Clinton and very few people were paying attention to Barack Obama as he prowled the left-wing caverns of his party, the future president felt free to state his health care plans in crystal clear language. His goal, he said, is to "eliminate employer coverage" although he admits there's going to be a transition process that is "15 years out, or 20 years out." He leaves no doubt at the SEIU and the AFL-CIO that:

"I happen to be a proponent of a single-payer universal health care plan…that's what I'd like to see."

Single-payer, universal health care would, of course, eventually eliminate the private insurer, the backbone of employer-based, high-quality health care. It would effectively herd most Americans into a "public option" plan that would not be shared by elites, be they the wealthy, Members of Congress current and past, presidents and former presidents, Hollywood celebrities and so on. ObamaCare's critics have used the term "Trojan Horse" to describe the Obama answers as presented by Douglass and the President himself. As in the ancient story, once the Obama "public option" is through the gates, private insurance will, as the President himself said when no one was looking, eventually be eliminated, even if it takes 15 or 20 years to do it.

While the President and his critics disagree as to whether this should be done, in fact they both agree that this will in fact be the end result if the President gets his way. The President himself says flatly that is his objective. Based on his actions since taking office, with government controlling everything from General Motors to banks to financial institutions, there is no reason to doubt his stated intentions on health care.

Having shown us one set of tapes but not the other, in wonderfully Sylvesterian style Douglass looks the camera in the eye and, assuming the rest of us are stupid, says: "It's very important for you to have the facts."

And with that, Linda Douglass wins her Sylvester.

THE REALLY DISTURBING PART of this comes right about now, as it begins to dawn on startled Americans -- as it was slowly dawning on the journalists covering Mr. McNamara in the early 1960s -- that officials representing the government have made lying about policy a policy unto itself. In Sylvester-speak, they are watching another set of government officials who believe, like their Vietnam-era predecessors, that government has "an inherent right to lie."

The only difference here is that instead of lying about Vietnam we're talking about lying about health care.

It is now crystal clear that the Obama administration is lying about the president's goal of achieving a single-payer health care system. Let's be even more blunt:

The President is lying.

And Ms. Douglass has specifically gone on camera to lie for him -- just as Arthur Sylvester lied for Robert McNamara and the two presidents for whom McNamara worked.

There are consequences for presidents who do this or who are perceived as doing this. LBJ and Richard Nixon lost their presidencies when it came clear to Americans that they had not been told the truth about Vietnam (LBJ) and Watergate (Nixon). George H.W. Bush's breaking of his "read my lips -- no new taxes" pledge opened him to charges of lying -- and cost him re-election. Bill Clinton came within an ace of losing his job -- and effectively lost most of his second term -- when he lied over Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones. While there is not a single shred of proof to this day that George W. Bush knew there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq but lied and invaded anyway, the perception -- deliberately pushed by people like then-Senator Obama -- is that if he didn't lie then he "misled." However you slice it, the perception was damaging to the remainder of the Bush presidency.

And yes, as someone who served in the Reagan White House during the Iran-Contra affair, it must be said that while President Reagan never thought he was "trading arms for hostages" (and in truth, I'm not sure he ever did believe this in his heart-of-hearts, as he indicated), he finally went to a disapproving American people and said this:

"A few months ago I told the American people I did not trade arms for hostages. My heart and my best intentions still tell me that's true, but the facts and the evidence tell me it is not. As the Tower board reported, what began as a strategic opening to Iran deteriorated, in its implementation, into trading arms for hostages. This runs counter to my own beliefs, to administration policy, and to the original strategy we had in mind."

With that apology, the American people forgave a president they liked a lot. Several staff members lost their jobs. The Reagan era proceeded, the polls stabilized and the President got back to his job.

Which makes the Obama lie on health care reform all the more ironic. Having reached the presidency propelled by those insisting Bush was a liar, to now be caught on videotape lying quite specifically and in detail about his health care objectives has the potential for being a torpedo amidships for the political ship Obama.

Just as it did with LBJ, Nixon, Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43, the perception of lying or the discovery of an actual, quite deliberate lie shifts the debate from one about the substance of the president's program itself to the much worse and increasingly angry perception by average Americans that they are being quite deliberately lied to. "You're lying to me!" barked a self-identified Democrat to House Democratic Leader Steny Hoyer in a YouTube moment. Hoyer was in Utica, New York, to discuss high speed rail, a subject about as far from health care as one can get. The challenge to him by a fellow Democrat named Don Jeror came first on the stimulus bill -- not health care. "I recognize a liar when I see one," snapped Jeror. Hoyer's response? To praise the construction of the Erie Canal in the 1800s.

At least Sylvester had the lack of 24/7 cable news and the Internet going for him. Linda Douglass doesn't have that luxury, but it certainly hasn't fazed her. With a seeming nonchalance if not eagerness to please her boss and staff seniors, she has quite deliberately gone on camera to assume the role of a 21st century Arthur Sylvester. She has looked the American people right straight in the eye and, in spite of the quite vivid video evidence to the contrary, told us all something that we now know to be a complete Sylvester-style untruth.

Which is to say: a lie.

The implications for the health care debate as it goes forward are considerable. As the understanding grows that the President's staff, not to mention the President himself, is willing to deliberately lie about health care -- just as Sylvester and his bosses did with Vietnam -- an entire presidency can be undermined. "It's only about sex" went the plaintive defense of Clinton aides during the impeachment imbroglio. While there were plenty of people who thought it was about other things -- perjury being but one -- if one accepts the Clinton standard -- and many people did -- one can only come up with bad news for Obama.

The "it's only about sex" defense implied that the whole issue just wasn't important. There is not an American out there who believes their health care isn't important. It would be almost impossible to touch a more sensitive nerve in the American psyche. Even the controversy of war, necessitating as it always does the physical service of the mostly young and (these days) volunteers, doesn't have the impact of messing with the health care of every breathing American. Millions of Americans may never get closer to military service than the movies. Not everyone has skin in the game in the sense of a family member or friend walking around Iraq or Afghanistan. But you can take it to the bank that every single citizen has skin in the game of health care. And they know it.

Which means that once they understand the President and his staff are, in the tradition of Arthur Sylvester, all too willing to deliberately lie -- there will be hell to pay.

That hell is only now showing up in all these town meetings. And Obama's allies, following the White House strategy for dealing with opposition ("If you get hit, we will punch back twice as hard," says deputy chief of staff Jim Messina) are taking the Obama staff's message to heart. At a Missouri town hall meeting for Democrat Russ Carnahan, union goons wearing SEIU shirts beat up a young black entrepreneur named Kenneth Gladney, sending him to the hospital for simply trying to make a buck selling flags and buttons to the crowd. Remember exactly where Mr. Obama made his single payer pledge on the video? You got that right: at a gathering of the SEIU.

Linda Douglass has apparently chosen to take the Arthur Sylvester approach to government service. If she wants to avoid being immortalized in history books forever as the Obama White House staffer who was willing to boldly look into the camera lens and lie for her boss -- quitting now would help. Otherwise, she will lose her reputation and credibility in the same fashion Sylvester lost his, becoming one more person for whom, as Halberstam noted long ago, "the failure to resign meant that you had a soft job where you could exercise power, and that your principles were secondary."

Failing that, Ms. Douglass would be better served if she advised her boss to simply tell the truth. And the truth for President Obama is that he's a believer in single-payer, universal health care and he hopes to eliminate private insurance down the road.

He said it. He quite obviously believes it. He's now trying to do it. Lying about it will not help his cause.

Or her reputation.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.