Eminentoes

Boxing With Barbara, Liz, and the Latina

Government power plus insecurity plus arrogance: the health care consequences for all of us.

By 6.23.09

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"Do me a favor, can you say 'senator' instead of 'ma'am'? It's just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it. Thank you." 
--
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) to  Brig. Gen. Michael Walsh of the Army Corps of Engineers

"Quit apologizing and never call me anything but Elizabeth again. Also, make sure you correct anyone who attempts to call me by any other name but Elizabeth. Are we clear on this? Like I said, it's a hot button for me. And please don't call the office and not leave a message. My colleague told me you called while I was away at the Ladies' room. I do sometimes leave my desk." 
-- Elizabeth Becton, scheduler/office manager for Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.) in an e-mail to a lobbyist.

"I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life."
-- Supreme Court nominee Judge Sonia Sotomayor in remarks at the Judge Mario G. Olmos Law and Cultural Diversity Lecture at the University of California, Berkeley.

It's about the power, stupid. That's before you even get to the finer gradations of gender and race..

To think that there are white guys rolling around Washington, D.C. or state capitals not capable of some version of the attitude exhibited above in these incredibly abusive or racially charged statements is to terribly misunderstand the potent mixture that is human beings and government power.  

As you can detect in the words above, from the lowliest congressional office manager all the way up to a multiple-term United States Senator and a long-time sitting federal judge now on the verge of a lifetime seat on the United States Supreme Court, the instinctive, gut reaction from all three is precisely the same in response to some sort of challenge, whether real or imagined.

It does not matter a hill of beans who is on the receiving end of this kind of thing. You may be a brigadier general sitting across from Barbara Boxer. A lobbyist e-mailing Elizabeth Becton.  Or the lawyer for a group of white firemen appealing a case to Sonia Sotomayor unaware of the Judge's now much publicized racial sentiments. Message to recipient? "You (General, lobbyist, fireman) are screwed. Big time. And if you don't like it? Well, how does 'go pound sand' sound?  I have the power -- now grovel. I am also a member of a (fill-in-the-blank) certain gender or politically correct ethnic group. To question or challenge me means you are a sexist or racist. Besides which, even if were a garden variety white guy -- I still have more power than you do. I work for the government. So shut up and do as I say. Exactly as I say."

In another time and place this kind of behavior might be written off as an unpleasant or annoying curiosity, a cause to muse on insecurity or ego. The recipient of this kind of treatment simply swallows hard and moves on.  The problem is that this is the here and now of the Obama era. When this attitude is coupled to a massive expansion of government power -- the takeover of banks or car companies or your health insurance to name but three -- Americans are headed for very serious trouble. In fact, trouble is already here.

• On March 29 Rick Wagoner, chairman of General Motors, is told by President Obama that he is out -- fired. Reason: the government has waded in and taken control of Wagoner's company. Barack Obama was displeased with Wagoner -- and in this case threat and execution are one and the same: Wagoner, you are history. Get out.

• Bank of America CEO Kenneth Lewis tells Congress that when he hesitated on a merger between BOA and Merrill Lynch, then Secretary of the Treasury Hank Paulson threatened to fire Lewis and the entire Bank of America Board. In Lewis's words, the government officials "gave that threat to a bank in good standing" -- meaning to BOA.

• Tom Lauria, an attorney involved in the Chrysler bankruptcy, says one of his clients was "directly threatened by the White House" with use of the "full force of the White House press corps" to destroy his client's reputation if the client didn't do as the government wished.

Notice too that the government official in the middle example above involved George W. Bush's Treasury Secretary -- not Obama's.

Now imagine you have a health problem. And the American health care system has been changed by the Obama administration to inject the government into your health care. As Canadians are busy frantically warning Americans, our neighbors to the north have already discovered that when they wish to be treated the Canadian government must "approve" their treatment -- the hospital, the surgery, the length of time you are on a waiting list etc., etc., etc. Knowing this, imagine that the American government official you have to deal with to get your treatment "approved" in the Obama era is -- Barbara Boxer. Or Elizabeth Becton. Or Sonia Sotomayor.

Already burdened with a serious health situation, you now are put in the position of worrying whether you have said the wrong thing to the government health official. It might work like this.

"Do me a favor," says the haughty woman sitting across the desk from your anxious self as you struggle to deal with shooting pains in your gut or your prostate cancer ticks away like a time bomb. She peers over a pair of glasses. "Can you say 'Health Administrator' instead of 'ma'am'? It's just a thing. I worked so hard to get that title, so I'd appreciate it. Thank you."

• Or like this, as you e-mail back and forth to get a desperately needed appointment that has been delayed because of long waiting lists. Unaware that you have gotten the government health administrator's name wrong, you are startled to find that as you frantically await approval to go to a hospital nearest you for desperately needed treatment, treatment you should have had months ago but were denied by this very same administrator, she is concerned -- actually furious -- about whether you have shown her enough deference. She is also dismissive of your genuine attempts to apologize for offending her: "Quit apologizing and never call me anything but Elizabeth again. Also, make sure you correct anyone who attempts to call me by any other name but Elizabeth. Are we clear on this? Like I said, it's a hot button for me. And please don't call the Health Administrator's office and not leave a message. My colleague told me you called while I was away at the Ladies' room. I do sometimes leave my desk."

• Or maybe it plays out another way. You are concerned with the opinion given you by the government Health Administrator. You are trying to find another way to approach this. How about a second opinion? With a shake of her head, the government health administrator assigned to your case denies the request, saying with an airy certitude and a pleasant smile: :"I would hope that a wise Latina woman government Health  Administrator such as myself, with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male government Health Administrator who hasn't lived that life,"

Or, better yet. You have drawn a government health administrator named Eliot Spitzer. Health Administrator Spitzer is decidedly a white guy without a feminine speck in his make-up. You, however, are not happy with Health Administrator Spitzer.  Every question or request or minor disagreement has resulted in a vitriolic response from the bureaucrat behind the desk who holds your health care in his hands.  Among the gems from Health Administrator Spitzer that have startled you:

"Listen, I'm a f - - - ing steamroller, and I'll roll over you and anybody else,"…was his response when you indicated you wished to speak to another Health Administrator.

"This is my room and we'll play by my rules."…replied the Health Administrator when you asked if the blinds could be lowered because the sunlight streaming into the room was bothering the eyes that needed an operation.

"I will be coming after you. You will pay the price," snarled the Health Administrator when he learned you had complained of his handling of your request for surgery at a local hospital instead of one 100 miles distant.

"I fully intend to use the capacity of my office to act on this … I have a lot of friends in government, and I'm going to organize a boycott of the show." …To a talk radio producer who has learned of the Health Administrator's conduct from several angry and upset patients.

"Health Administrator" Eliot Spitzer is, of course, really former New York attorney general and governor Eliot Spitzer. And yes, the quotes above are but a few of the real things Spitzer was quoted in the press as saying in the course of wielding government power as the state's number one law enforcement official and then chief executive.

The behavior cited above is, unfortunately, not at all untypical in the world of government power. Perhaps the initial, more spectacular example of this in American history was the stubborn insistence of Britain's King George the Third to deny his American colonists the same rights as British citizens in the Motherland. As a result of this gross and disdainful abuse of government power came, eventually (after the small matter of the Revolutionary War), the very carefully crafted Constitution of the United States. The underlying premise of which is that all human beings being fallible, a set of iron clad rules (free speech, a free press, freedom of religion etc.) had to be established while insisting that government power be separated out into equal and opposing branches. The idea was to tightly limit government because all too much human experience had shown that humans with government power can run the gamut of craziness from the haughty pretentiousness shown recently by Barbara Boxer to the self-important egoism of Elizabeth Becton to the proud imperiousness of Sonia Sotomayor to the outright threatening of a bully-prone Eliot Spitzer. And worse. 

It mattered not the race, creed or gender of the government official. Any American today who has found himself at crossed verbal swords with a bureaucrat -- be they parking attendant, the guy at the motor vehicle bureau, the IRS official, the Social Security or Medicare or passport or post office career type -- knows exactly the drill.

There is an attitude. And, as Boxer, Becton, Sotomayor, Spitzer, Obama, Hank Paulson and others -- many others -- have all vividly displayed in their own distinctive fashion, it is a very human attitude that is all too revealing when humans wield government power. In short: "I have government power and you don't. I have no competition. Too bad for you." In that melding of humanity with government power lie possibilities for everything from simple incompetence to maliciousness to lethal end results. This is why the drive in the Obama era to increase the power of government is so dangerous. This is why the seemingly un-related silliness of Senator Boxer, Office Manager Becton and Judge Sotomayor should serve as warning flags in the discussion of health care, the economy, the role of a Supreme Court justice and all the rest.

When you get sick, the person you want to help you make medical decisions should have one two-word title that you and you alone have bestowed on him or her: My Doctor. If you wind up facing a government official who in any way shape or form has a say in your treatment, somewhere along the line you will find yourself dealing with a bureaucrat. A bureaucrat who will display in one particular form or another the attitude that has already been displayed to a Brigadier General sitting across from Boxer, a lobbyist e-mailing Becton and the fireman who wanted non-racial justice from Sotomayor.

As ABC News sits down with President Obama in the East Room of the White House (which, however lovely, is very much a government building) and sells its journalistic soul in the name of government-sponsored health care -- listen not just to the words but the music. Listen not just to Obama's responses to the questions. Listen carefully instead to the attitude that lurks behind it all. The music, if you will. The sound that is the background music to the message that is the driving premise of the Obama era.

In the words of  Eliot Spitzer: "This is my room and we'll play by my rules….I'm a f---ing steamroller." Or, in the polite, if haughtier tones of Barbara Boxer to the Brigadier General: "I'd appreciate it."

Barbara Boxer is a whole lot more polite than Eliot Spitzer. So is Barack Obama. But make no mistake.

The message -- and the attitude behind that message -- is the same.

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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.