Randy's Corner Deli Library

26 August 2009

Obituary: Edward M. Kennedy

I for one am so sad to see Ted Kennedy gone. When he was diagnosed with a glioma, a brain tumor, we all knew it was only a matter of time, and from all the reports I've read, he conducted himself with grace and dignity, something that cannot always be said about how he lived his life. But many commentators are saying that out of the three Kennedy brothers, John, Robert and Ted, Ted's 46 year legislative career will have the longest lasting impact on Americans. This was the end of the line for the old-line Kennedys, a part of our childhood, Camelot and all, that has come to an end. Who will pick up the liberal banner and carry it with vigor and commitment? I fear a loss of liberal leadership in the Senate and elsewhere that will be filled with centrists concerned only with getting reelected, not principled stands on what is good for America and Americans.

Randy Shiner

August 27, 2009

Obituary: Edward M. Kennedy

Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, a son of one of the most storied families in American politics, a man who knew acclaim and tragedy in near-equal measure and who will be remembered as one of the most effective lawmakers in the history of the Senate, died late Tuesday night. He was 77.

The death of Mr. Kennedy, who had been battling brain cancer, was announced Wednesday morning in a statement by the Kennedy family, which was already mourning the death of the senator’s sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver two weeks earlier.

“Edward M. Kennedy — the husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle we loved so deeply — died late Tuesday night at home in Hyannis Port,” the statement said. “We’ve lost the irreplaceable center of our family and joyous light in our lives, but the inspiration of his faith, optimism and perseverance will live on in our hearts forever.”

President Obama said Mr. Kennedy was one of the nation’s greatest senators.

“His ideas and ideals are stamped on scores of laws and reflected in millions of lives — in seniors who know new dignity, in families that know new opportunity, in children who know education’s promise, and in all who can pursue their dream in an America that is more equal and more just — including myself,” he said. Mr. Obama is scheduled to speak at a funeral Mass for Mr. Kennedy on Saturday morning in Boston.

Mr. Kennedy had been in precarious health since he suffered a seizure in May 2008. His doctors determined the cause was a malignant glioma, a brain tumor that carries a grim prognosis.

As he underwent cancer treatment, Mr. Kennedy was little seen in Washington, appearing most recently at the White House in April as Mr. Obama signed a national service bill that bears the Kennedy name. In a letter last week, Mr. Kennedy urged Massachusetts lawmakers to change state law and let Gov. Deval Patrick appoint a temporary successor upon his death, to assure that the state’s representation in Congress would not be interrupted.

While Mr. Kennedy was physically absent from the capital in recent months, his presence was deeply felt as Congress weighed the most sweeping revisions to America’s health care system in decades, an effort Mr. Kennedy called “the cause of my life.”

On July 15, the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, which Mr. Kennedy headed, passed health care legislation, and the battle over the proposed overhaul is now consuming Capitol Hill.

Mr. Kennedy was the last surviving brother of a generation of Kennedys that dominated American politics in the 1960s and that came to embody glamour, political idealism and untimely death. The Kennedy mystique — some call it the Kennedy myth — has held the imagination of the world for decades, and it came to rest on the sometimes too-narrow shoulders of the brother known as Teddy.

Mr. Kennedy, who served 46 years as the most well-known Democrat in the Senate, longer than all but two other senators, was the only one of those brothers to reach old age. President John F. Kennedy and Senator Robert F. Kennedy were felled by assassins’ bullets in their 40s. The eldest brother, Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., died in 1944 at the age of 29 while on a risky World War II bombing mission.

Mr. Kennedy spent much of the last year in treatment and recuperation, broken by occasional public appearances and a dramatic return to the Capitol last summer to cast a decisive vote on a Medicare bill.

He electrified the opening night of the Democratic National Convention in Denver in August with an unscheduled appearance and a speech that had delegates on their feet. Many were in tears.

His gait was halting, but his voice was strong. “My fellow Democrats, my fellow Americans, it is so wonderful to be here, and nothing is going to keep me away from this special gathering tonight,” Mr. Kennedy said. “I have come here tonight to stand with you to change America, to restore its future, to rise to our best ideals and to elect Barack Obama president of the United States.”

Senator Kennedy was at or near the center of much of American history in the latter part of the 20th century and the early years of the 21st. For much of his adult life, he veered from victory to catastrophe, winning every Senate election he entered but failing in his only bid for the presidency; living through the sudden deaths of his brothers and three of his nephews; being responsible for the drowning death on Chappaquiddick Island of a young woman, Mary Jo Kopechne, a former aide to his brother Robert. One of the nephews, John F. Kennedy Jr., who the family hoped would one day seek political office and keep the Kennedy tradition alive, died in a plane crash in 1999 at age 38.

Mr. Kennedy himself was almost killed in 1964, in a plane crash that left him with permanent back and neck problems.

He was a Rabelaisian figure in the Senate and in life, instantly recognizable by his shock of white hair, his florid, oversize face, his booming Boston brogue, his powerful but pained stride. He was a celebrity, sometimes a self-parody, a hearty friend, an implacable foe, a man of large faith and large flaws, a melancholy character who persevered, drank deeply and sang loudly. He was a Kennedy.

Senator Robert C. Byrd, Democrat of West Virginia, one of the institution’s most devoted students, said of his longtime colleague, “Ted Kennedy would have been a leader, an outstanding senator, at any period in the nation’s history.”

Mr. Byrd is one of only two senators to have served longer in the chamber than Mr. Kennedy; the other was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina. In May 2008, on learning of Mr. Kennedy’s diagnosis of a lethal brain tumor, Mr. Byrd wept openly on the floor of the Senate.

Born to one of the wealthiest American families, Mr. Kennedy spoke for the downtrodden in his public life while living the heedless private life of a playboy and a rake for many of his years. Dismissed early in his career as a lightweight and an unworthy successor to his revered brothers, he grew in stature over time by sheer longevity and by hewing to liberal principles while often crossing the partisan aisle to enact legislation. A man of unbridled appetites at times, he nevertheless brought a discipline to his public work that resulted in an impressive catalog of legislative achievement across a broad landscape of social policy.

Mr. Kennedy left his mark on legislation concerning civil rights, health care, education, voting rights and labor. He was chairman of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions at his death. But he was more than a legislator. He was a living legend whose presence ensured a crowd and whose hovering figure haunted many a president.

Although he was a leading spokesman for liberal issues and a favorite target of conservative fund-raising appeals, the hallmark of his legislative success was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed. Perhaps the last notable example was his work with President George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind, the education law pushed by Mr. Bush in 2001. He also co-sponsored immigration legislation with Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. One of his greatest friends and collaborators in the Senate was Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican.

Mr. Kennedy had less impact on foreign policy than on domestic concerns, but when he spoke, his voice was influential. He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid, pushed for peace in Northern Ireland, won a ban on arms sales to the dictatorship in Chile and denounced the Vietnam War. In 2002, he voted against authorizing the Iraq war; later, he called that opposition “the best vote I’ve made in my 44 years in the United States Senate.”

At a pivotal moment in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Mr. Kennedy endorsed Mr. Obama, then an Illinois senator, Obama for president, saying he offered the country a chance for racial reconciliation and an opportunity to turn the page on the polarizing politics of the past several decades.

“He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past,” Mr. Kennedy said at an Obama rally in Washington on Jan. 28, 2008. “He is a leader who sees the world clearly, without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view.”

This month, Mr. Obama awarded Mr. Kennedy the Presidential Medal of Freedom, which his daughter, Kara, accepted on his behalf.

Mr. Kennedy struggled for much of his life with his weight, with alcohol and with persistent tales of womanizing. In an Easter break episode in 1991 in Palm Beach, Fla., he went out drinking with his son Patrick and a nephew, William Kennedy Smith, on the night that Mr. Smith was accused of raping a woman. Mr. Smith was prosecuted in a lurid trial that fall but was acquitted.

Mr. Kennedy’s personal life stabilized in 1992 with his marriage to Victoria Anne Reggie, a Washington lawyer. His first marriage, to Joan Bennett Kennedy, ended in divorce in 1982 after 24 years.

Senator Kennedy served as a surrogate father to his brothers’ children and worked to keep the Kennedy flame alive through the Kennedy Library in Boston, the Kennedy Center in Washington and the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he helped establish the Institute of Politics.

In December, Harvard granted Mr. Kennedy a special honorary degree. He referred to Mr. Obama’s election as “not just a culmination, but a new beginning.”

He then spoke of his own life, and perhaps his legacy.

“We know the future will outlast all of us, but I believe that all of us will live on in the future we make,” he said. “I have lived a blessed time.”

Kennedy family courtiers and many other Democrats believed he would eventually win the White House and redeem the promise of his older brothers. In 1980, he took on the president of his own party, Jimmy Carter, but fell short because of Chappaquiddick, a divided party and his own weaknesses as a candidate, including an inability to articulate why he sought the office.

But as that race ended in August at the Democratic National Convention in New York, Mr. Kennedy delivered his most memorable words, wrapping his dedication to party principles in the gauzy cloak of Camelot.

“For me, a few hours ago, this campaign came to an end,” Mr. Kennedy said in the coda to a speech before a rapt audience at Madison Square Garden and on television. “For all those whose cares have been our concern, the work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives and the dream shall never die.”

A Family Steeped in Politics

Born Feb. 22, 1932, in Boston, Edward Moore Kennedy grew up in a family of shrewd politicians. Both his father, Joseph P. Kennedy, and his mother, the former Rose Fitzgerald, came from prominent Irish-Catholic families with long involvement in the hurly-burly of Democratic politics in Boston and Massachusetts. His father, who made a fortune in real estate, movies and banking, served in President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s administration, as the first chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission and then as ambassador to Britain.

There were nine Kennedy children, four boys and five girls, with Edward the youngest. They grew up talking politics, power and influence because those were the things that preoccupied the mind of Joseph Kennedy. As Rose Kennedy, who took responsibility for the children’s Roman Catholic upbringing, once put it, “My babies were rocked to political lullabies.”

When Edward was born, President Herbert Hoover sent Rose a bouquet of flowers and a note of congratulations. The note came with 5 cents postage due; the framed envelope is a family heirloom.

It was understood among the children that Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the oldest boy, would someday run for Congress and, his father hoped, the White House. When Joseph Jr. was killed in World War II, it fell to the next oldest son, John, to run. As John said at one point in 1959 while serving in the Senate: “Just as I went into politics because Joe died, if anything happened to me tomorrow, Bobby would run for my seat in the Senate. And if Bobby died, our young brother, Ted, would take over for him.”

Although surrounded by the trappings of wealth — stately houses, servants and expensive cars — young Teddy did not enjoy a settled childhood. He bounced among the family homes in Boston, New York, London and Palm Beach, and by the time he was ready to enter college, he had attended 10 preparatory schools in the United States and England, finally finishing at Milton Academy, near Boston. He said that the constant moving had forced him to become more genial with strangers; indeed, he grew to be more of a natural politician than either John or Robert.

After graduating from Milton in 1950, where he showed a penchant for debating and sports but was otherwise an undistinguished student, Mr. Kennedy enrolled in Harvard, as had his father and brothers.

It was at Harvard, in his freshman year, that he ran into the first of several personal troubles that were to dog him for the rest of his life: He persuaded another student to take his Spanish examination, got caught and was forced to leave the university.

Suddenly draft-eligible during the Korean War, Mr. Kennedy enlisted in the Army and served two years, securing, with his father’s help, a post at NATO headquarters in Paris. In 1953, he was discharged with the rank of private first class.

Re-enrolling in Harvard, he became a more serious student, majoring in government, excelling in public speaking and playing first-string end on the football team. He graduated in 1956 with a Bachelor of Arts degree, then enrolled in the University of Virginia School of Law, where Robert had studied. There, he won the moot court competition and took a degree in 1959. Later that year, he was admitted to the Massachusetts bar.

Mr. Kennedy’s first foray into politics came in 1958, while still a law student, when he managed John’s Senate re-election campaign. There was never any real doubt that Massachusetts voters would return John Kennedy to Washington, but it was a useful internship for his youngest brother.

That same year, Mr. Kennedy married Virginia Joan Bennett, a debutante from Bronxville, a New York suburb where the Kennedys had once lived. In 1960, when John Kennedy ran for president, Edward was assigned a relatively minor role, rustling up votes in Western states that usually voted Republican. He was so enthusiastic about his task that he rode a bronco at a Montana rodeo and daringly took a ski jump at a winter sports tournament in Wisconsin to impress a crowd. The episodes were evidence of a reckless streak that repeatedly threatened his life and career.

John Kennedy’s election to the White House left vacant a Senate seat that the family considered its property. Robert Kennedy was next in line, but chose the post of attorney general instead (an act of nepotism that has since been outlawed). Edward was only 28, two years shy of the minimum age for Senate service.

So the Kennedys installed Benjamin A. Smith II, a family friend, as a seat-warmer until 1962, when a special election would be held and Edward would have turned 30. Edward used the time to travel the world and work as an assistant district attorney in Boston, waiving the $5,000 salary and serving instead for $1 a year.

As James Sterling Young, the director of a Kennedy Oral History Project at the University of Virginia, said the catchphrase of that era was: “Most people grow up and go into politics. The Kennedys go into politics and then they grow up.”

Less than a month after turning 30 in 1962, Mr. Kennedy declared his candidacy for the remaining two years of his brother’s Senate term. He entered the race with a tailwind of family money and political prominence. Nevertheless, Edward J. McCormack Jr., the state’s attorney general and a nephew of John W. McCormack, then speaker of the United States House of Representatives, also decided to go after the seat.

It was a bitter fight, with a public rehash of the Harvard cheating episode and with Mr. McCormack charging in a televised “Teddy-Eddie” debate that Mr. Kennedy lacked maturity of judgment because he had “never worked for a living” and had never held elective office. “If your name was simply Edward Moore instead of Edward Moore Kennedy,” Mr. McCormack added, “your candidacy would be a joke.”

But the Kennedys had ushered in an era of celebrity politics, which trumped qualifications in this case. Mr. Kennedy won the primary by a two-to-one ratio, then went on to easy victory in November against the Republican candidate, George Cabot Lodge, a member of an old-line Boston family that had clashed politically with the Kennedys through the years.

When Mr. Kennedy entered the Senate in 1962, he was aware that he might be seen as an upstart, with one brother in the White House and another in the cabinet. He sought guidance on the very first day from one of the Senate’s most respected elders, Richard Russell of Georgia. “You go further if you go slow,” Senator Russell advised.

Mr. Kennedy took things slowly, especially that first year. He did his homework, was seen more than he was heard and was deferential to veteran legislators.

On Friday, Nov. 22, 1963, he was presiding over the Senate when a wire service ticker in the lobby brought the news of John Kennedy’s shooting in Dallas. Violence had claimed the second of Joseph Kennedy’s sons.

Edward was sent to Hyannis Port to break the news to his father, who had been disabled by a stroke. He returned to Washington for the televised funeral and burial, the first many Americans had seen of him. He and Robert had planned to read excerpts from John’s speeches at the Arlington burial service. At the last moment they chose not to.

A friend described him as “shattered — calm but shattered.”

A Deadly Plane Crash

Robert moved into the breach and was immediately discussed as a presidential prospect. Edward became a more prominent family spokesman.

The next year, he was up for re-election. A heavy favorite from the start, he was on his way to the state convention that was to renominate him when his light plane crashed in a storm near Westfield, Mass. The pilot and a Kennedy aide were killed, and Mr. Kennedy’s back and several ribs were broken. Senator Birch Bayh of Indiana pulled Mr. Kennedy from the plane.

The senator was hospitalized for the next six months, suspended immobile in a frame that resembled a waffle iron. His wife, Joan, carried on his campaign, mainly by advising voters that he was steadily recovering. He won easily over a little-known Republican, Howard Whitmore Jr.

During his convalescence, Mr. Kennedy devoted himself to his legislative work. He was briefed by a parade of Harvard professors and began to develop his positions on immigration, health care and civil rights.

“I never thought the time was lost,” he said later. “I had a lot of hours to think about what was important and what was not and about what I wanted to do with my life.”

He returned to the Senate in 1965, joining his brother Robert, who had won a seat from New York. Edward promptly entered a major fight, his first. President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act was up for consideration, and Mr. Kennedy tried to strengthen it with an amendment that would have outlawed poll taxes. He lost by only four votes, serving lasting notice on his colleagues that he was a rapidly maturing legislator who could prepare a good case and argue it effectively.

Mr. Kennedy was slow to oppose the war in Vietnam, but in 1968, shortly after Robert decided to seek the presidency on an antiwar platform, Edward called the war a “monstrous outrage.”

Robert Kennedy was shot on June 5, 1968, as he celebrated his victory in the California primary, becoming the third of Joseph Kennedy’s sons to die a violent death. Edward was in San Francisco at a victory celebration. He commandeered an Air Force plane and flew to Los Angeles.

Frank Mankiewicz, Robert’s press secretary, saw Edward “leaning over the sink with the most awful expression on his face.”

“Much more than agony, more than anguish — I don’t know if there’s a word for it,” Mr. Mankiewicz said, recalling the encounter in “Edward M. Kennedy: A Biography,” by Adam Clymer (William Morrow, 1999).

Robert’s death draped Edward in the Kennedy mantle long before he was ready for it and forced him to confront his own mortality. But he summoned himself to deliver an eloquent eulogy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York.

“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life, to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it,” Mr. Kennedy said, his voice faltering. “Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will someday come to pass for all the world.”

A New Role as Patriarch

After the funeral, Edward Kennedy withdrew from public life and spent several months brooding, much of it while sailing off the New England coast.

Near the end of the summer of 1968, he emerged from seclusion, the sole survivor of Joseph Kennedy’s boys, ready to take over as family patriarch and substitute father to John’s and Robert’s 13 children, seemingly eager to get on with what he called his “public responsibilities.”

“There is no safety in hiding,” he declared in August in a speech at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass. “Like my brothers before me, I pick up a fallen standard. Sustained by the memory of our priceless years together, I shall try to carry forward that special commitment to justice, excellence and courage that distinguished their lives.”

There was some talk of his running for president at that point. But he ultimately endorsed Hubert H. Humphrey in his losing campaign to Richard M. Nixon.

Mr. Kennedy focused more on bringing the war in Vietnam to an end and on building his Senate career. Although only 36, he challenged Senator Russell B. Long of Louisiana, one of the shrewdest, most powerful legislators on Capitol Hill, for the post of deputy majority leader. Fellow liberals sided with him, and he edged Mr. Long by five votes to become the youngest assistant majority leader, or whip, in Senate history.

He plunged into the new job with Kennedy enthusiasm. But fate, and the Kennedy recklessness, intervened on July 18, 1969. Mr. Kennedy was at a party with several women who had been aides to Robert. The party, a liquor-soaked barbecue, was held at a rented cottage on Chappaquiddick Island, off Martha’s Vineyard. He left around midnight with Mary Jo Kopechne, 28, took a turn away from the ferry landing and drove the car off a narrow bridge on an isolated beach road. The car sank in eight feet of water, but he managed to escape. Miss Kopechne, a former campaign worker for Robert, drowned.

Mr. Kennedy did not report the accident to the authorities for almost 10 hours, explaining later that he had been so banged about by the crash that he had suffered a concussion, and that he had become so exhausted while trying to rescue Miss Kopechne that he had gone immediately to bed. A week later, he pleaded guilty to a charge of leaving the scene of an accident and was given a two-month suspended sentence.

But that was far from the end of the episode. Questions lingered in the minds of the Massachusetts authorities and of the general public. Why was the car on an isolated road? Had he been drinking? (Mr. Kennedy testified at an inquest that he had had two drinks.) What sort of relationship did Mr. Kennedy and Miss Kopechne have? Could she have been saved if he had sought help immediately? Why did the senator tell his political advisers about the accident before reporting it to the police?

The controversy became so intense that Mr. Kennedy went on television to ask Massachusetts voters whether he should resign from office. He conceded that his actions after the crash had been “indefensible.” But he steadfastly denied any intentional wrongdoing.

His constituents sent word that he should remain in the Senate. And little more than a year later, he easily won re-election to a second full term, defeating a little-known Republican, Josiah A. Spaulding, by a three-to-two ratio. But his heart did not seem to be in his work any longer. He was sometimes absent from Senate sessions and neglected his whip duties. Senator Byrd, of West Virginia, took the job away from him by putting together a coalition of Southern and border-state Democrats to vote him out.

That loss shook Mr. Kennedy out of his lethargy. He rededicated himself to his role as a legislator. “It hurts like hell to lose,” he said, “but now I can get around the country more. And it frees me to spend more time on issues I’m interested in.” Many years later, he became friends with Mr. Byrd and told him the defeat had been the best thing that could have happened in his Senate career.

Turmoil at Home

In the next decade, Mr. Kennedy expanded on his national reputation, first pushing to end the war in Vietnam, then concentrating on his favorite legislative issues, especially civil rights, health, taxes, criminal laws and deregulation of the airline and trucking industries. He traveled the country, making speeches that kept him in the public eye.

But when he was mentioned as a possible candidate for president in 1972, he demurred; and when the Democratic nominee, George McGovern, offered him the vice-presidential nomination, Mr. Kennedy again said no, not wanting to face the inevitable Chappaquiddick questions.

In 1973, his son Edward M. Kennedy Jr., then 12, developed a bone cancer that cost him a leg. The next year, Mr. Kennedy took himself out of the 1976 presidential race. Instead, he easily won a third full term in the Senate, and Jimmy Carter, a former one-term governor of Georgia, moved into the White House.

In early 1978, Mr. Kennedy’s wife, Joan, moved out of their sprawling contemporary house overlooking the Potomac River near McLean, Va., a Washington suburb. She took up residence in an apartment of her own in Boston, saying she wanted to “explore options other than being a housewife and mother.” But she also acknowledged a problem with alcohol, and conceded that she was increasingly uncomfortable with the pressure-cooker life that went with membership in the Kennedy clan. She began studying music and enrolled in a program for alcoholics.

The separation posed not only personal but also political problems for the senator. After Mrs. Kennedy left for Boston, there were rumors that linked the senator with other women. He maintained that he still loved his wife and indicated that the main reason for the separation was Mrs. Kennedy’s desire to work out her alcohol problem. She subsequently campaigned for him in the 1980 race, but there was never any real reconciliation, and they eventually entered divorce proceedings.

Although Mr. Kennedy supported Mr. Carter in 1976, by late 1978 he was disenchanted. Polls indicated that the senator was becoming popular while the president was losing support. In December, at a midterm Democratic convention in Memphis, Mr. Kennedy could hold back no longer. He gave a thundering speech that, in retrospect, was the opening shot in the 1980 campaign.

“Sometimes a party must sail against the wind,” he declared, referring to Mr. Carter’s economic belt-tightening and political caution. “We cannot heed the call of those who say it is time to furl the sail. The party that tore itself apart over Vietnam in the 1960s cannot afford to tear itself apart today over budget cuts in basic social programs.”

Mr. Kennedy did not then declare his candidacy. But draft-Kennedy groups began to form in early 1979, and some Democrats up for re-election in 1980 began to cast about for coattails that were longer than Mr. Carter’s.

After consulting advisers and family members over the summer of 1979, Mr. Kennedy began speaking openly of challenging the president, and on Nov. 7, 1979, he announced officially that he would run. “Our leaders have resigned themselves to defeat,” he said.

The campaign was a disaster, badly organized and appearing to lack a political or policy premise. His speeches were clumsy, and his delivery was frequently stumbling and bombastic. And in the background, Chappaquiddick always loomed. He won the New York and California primaries, but the victories were too little and came too late to unseat Mr. Carter. At the party’s nominating convention in New York, however, he stole the show with his “dream shall never die” speech.

With the approach of the 1984 election, there was the inevitable speculation that Mr. Kennedy, who had easily won re-election to the Senate in 1982, would again seek the presidency. He prepared and planned a campaign. But in the end he chose not to run, saying he wanted to spare his family a repeat of the ordeal they went through in 1980. Skeptics said he also knew he could not fight the undertow of Chappaquiddick.

A Full-On Senate Focus

Freed at last of the expectation that he should and would seek the White House, Mr. Kennedy devoted himself fully to his day job in the Senate, where he had already led the fight for the 18-year-old vote, the abolition of the draft, deregulation of the airline and trucking industries, and the post-Watergate campaign finance legislation. He was deeply involved in renewals of the Voting Rights Act and the Fair Housing law of 1968. He helped establish the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. He built federal support for community health care centers, increased cancer research financing and helped create the Meals on Wheels program. He was a major proponent of a health and nutrition program for pregnant women and infants.

When Republicans took over the Senate in 1981, Mr. Kennedy requested the ranking minority position on the Labor and Public Welfare Committee, asserting that the issues before the labor and welfare panel would be more important during the Reagan years.

In the years after his failed White House bid, Mr. Kennedy also established himself as someone who made “lawmaker” mean more than a word used in headlines to describe any member of Congress. Though his personal life was a mess until his remarriage in the early 1990s, he never failed to show up prepared for a committee hearing or a floor debate.

His most notable focus was civil rights, “still the unfinished business of America,” he often said. In 1982, he led a successful fight to defeat the Reagan administration’s effort to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

In one of those bipartisan alliances that were hallmarks of his legislative successes, Mr. Kennedy worked with Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, to secure passage of the voting rights measure, and Mr. Dole got most of the credit.

Perhaps his greatest success on civil rights came in 1990 with passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, which required employers and public facilities to make “reasonable accommodation” for the disabled. When the bill was finally passed, Mr. Kennedy and others told how their views on the bill had been shaped by having relatives with disabilities. Mr. Kennedy cited his mentally disabled sister, Rosemary, and his son who had lost a leg to cancer.

Mr. Kennedy was one of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s strongest allies in their failed 1994 effort to enact national health insurance, a measure the senator had been pushing, in one form or another, since 1969.

But he kept pushing incremental reforms, and in 1997, teaming with Senator Hatch, Mr. Kennedy helped enact a landmark health care program for children in low-income families, a program now known as the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, or S-Chip.

He led efforts to increase aid for higher education and win passage of Mr. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act. He pushed for increases in the federal minimum wage. He helped win enactment of the Medicare prescription drug benefit, one of the largest expansions of government health aid.

He was a forceful and successful opponent of the confirmation of Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court. In a speech delivered within minutes of President Ronald Reagan’s nomination of Mr. Bork in 1987, Mr. Kennedy made an attack that even friendly commentators called demagogic.

Mr. Bork’s “extremist view of the Constitution,” Mr. Kennedy said, meant that “Robert Bork’s America is a land in which women would be forced into back-alley abortions, blacks would sit at segregated lunch counters, rogue police could break down citizens’ doors in midnight raids, and schoolchildren could not be taught about evolution, writers and artists could be censored at the whim of government, and the doors of the federal courts would be shut on the fingers of millions of Americans.”Some of Mr. Kennedy’s success as a legislator can be traced to the quality and loyalty of his staff, considered by his colleagues and outsiders alike to be the best on Capitol Hill. “He has one of the most distinguished alumni associations of any U.S. senator,” said Ross K. Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University who has worked in Congress. “To have served in even a minor capacity in the Kennedy office or on one of his committees is a major entry in anyone’s résumé.”

Those who have worked for Mr. Kennedy include Stephen G. Breyer, appointed to the Supreme Court by President Clinton; Gregory B. Craig, now the White House counsel; and Kenneth R. Feinberg, the Obama administration’s top official for compensation.

Mr. Kennedy “deserves recognition not just as the leading senator of his time, but as one of the greats in its history, wise in the workings of this singular institution, especially its demand to be more than partisan to accomplish much,” Mr. Clymer wrote in his biography.

“The deaths and tragedies around him would have led others to withdraw. He never quits, but sails against the wind.”

Mr. Kennedy is survived by his wife, known as Vicki; two sons, Edward M. Kennedy Jr. of Branford, Conn., and Representative Patrick J. Kennedy of Rhode Island; a daughter, Kara Kennedy Allen, of Bethesda, Md.; two stepchildren, Curran Raclin and Caroline Raclin; and four grandchildren. His former wife, Joan Kennedy, lives in Boston.

Mr. Kennedy is also survived by a sister, Jean Kennedy Smith, of New York. On Aug. 11, his sister Eunice Kennedy Shriver of Potomac, Md., died at age 88. Another sister, Patricia Kennedy Lawford, died in 2006. His sister Rosemary died in 2005, and his sister Kathleen died in a plane crash in 1948.

Their little brother Teddy was the youngest, the little bear whom everyone cuddled, whom no one took seriously and from whom little was expected. He reluctantly and at times awkwardly carried the Kennedy standard, with all it implied and all it required. And yet, some scholars contend, he may have proved himself the most worthy.

“He was a quintessential Kennedy, in the sense that he had all the warts as well as all the charisma and a lot of the strengths,” said Norman J. Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute. “If his father, Joe, had surveyed, from an early age up to the time of his death, all of his children, his sons in particular, and asked to rank them on talents, effectiveness, likelihood to have an impact on the world, Ted would have been a very poor fourth. Joe, John, Bobby ... Ted.

“He was the survivor,” Mr. Ornstein continued. “He was not a shining star that burned brightly and faded away. He had a long, steady glow. When you survey the impact of the Kennedys on American life and politics and policy, he will end up by far being the most significant.”

Last Temptation

August 2009
Last Temptation

An interview with Wendell Potter

The former mouthpiece for insurance giant Cigna divulges his role in misleading the public, the emotional day that led to his whistle-blowing, and what should really scare you.

potter300.jpgIn June 2007, Wendell Potter was head of corporate communications at Cigna, one of the largest health insurance companies in America, when he attended the U.S. premiere of Michael Moore’s Sicko. Potter was part of the team charged with discrediting Moore’s film, which advance word said was highly critical of the health insurance industry. Potter “sat quietly in the back and took notes,” but soon realized he had a problem. “When I saw the movie, I’ll be honest: I thought it was a real good documentary. I knew from my own studies of other healthcare systems that it was an accurate portrayal of those systems and how they are able to provide universal coverage.” Yet he was being paid by Cigna to tell people the opposite, that the film was full of lies.

Just a few weeks later, Potter, who is from Tennessee, read in a local paper about a free healthcare expedition being held in Wise County, Virginia. He decided to check it out. Walking through the fairground gates, Potter saw hundreds of people waiting in the rain while physicians attended to patients in animal stalls or on gurneys lying on the rain-soaked pavement. Tents had been pitched across the fairground lawns, creating a scene “like something that could’ve been happening on a battlefield or in a war-torn country.” Tears mixed with the rain to cloud Potter’s vision. “What I thought was: ‘Is this the United States?’ It was so remote from my reality. It just seemed impossible.”

In months and years prior, Potter had grown increasingly skeptical about his job as chief spokesman for Cigna. Though he insists he never intentionally lied to a reporter, he began to spout what he thought were either misleading or less than honest statements. Moreover, his job required him to hype new programs he felt were not in the best interest of patients or the U.S. healthcare system—particularly when it came to high-deductible, or “consumer driven” plans. He came to feel he was on the wrong side of the healthcare debate and would catch himself gazing into a mirror, wondering, “Who is this? How did this happen to me?” After Sicko and Wise County, he resigned.

Since then, Potter has become an outspoken advocate for healthcare reform. Why reform? Because of statistics like these: The U.S. healthcare system is the most expensive in the world, with each person spending more than twice as much on care than people in other industrialized nations. Yet our system ranks 29th in infant mortality, 28th in healthy life expectancy, and 37th overall. In June, Potter testified before the Senate on the devastating effects that Wall Street has on our healthcare system. The overwhelming demand to satisfy investors, Potter told the committee, is what causes insurance companies to “confuse their customers and dump the sick.”

With twenty years of industry experience—he was head of corporate communications with Humana before moving on to Cigna—Potter is an important voice in the healthcare debate. As a former insider, he is uniquely positioned to reveal the industry’s secrets, like its obsession with the medical-loss ratio—the difference between what health insurance companies pay out in claims and what it has left over—which, Potter says, causes otherwise good people in the industry to allow patients to die in order to increase profits. Yet in another sense, Potter is not so unique. We’ve seen them before, former insiders who reap huge financial benefits from an industry or system only to publicly denigrate it years later. If things were so bad, we’re left wondering, why didn’t Potter say something earlier? I recently spoke with Potter by phone.

—Jake Whitney for Guernica

Guernica: During your time in the industry, you created health insurance front groups to mislead the public. Can you give me an example of one of these front groups?

Wendell Potter: When the Clinton plan collapsed [in 1994], there was an effort to pass legislation that would give enrollees in managed care more protections. The industry saw this as anti-managed care legislation, so they established a group called the Health Benefits Coalition. The Health Benefits Coalition, with the funding it got from the insurance industry, killed off the effort to get a Patient’s Bill of Rights passed. A more recent example of a front group I was involved with was trying to blunt the effect of [Michael Moore’s documentary] Sicko. Through a PR firm, the industry created a front group to disseminate misleading information about the healthcare systems featured in Sicko—particularly in Canada, the U.K., and France. This front group was set up specifically to try to counter [Moore’s positive depiction of them].

Guernica: What were your duties with these front groups?

Wendell Potter: To help form messaging and develop strategy with public relations firms. PR firms help create the front groups and serve as the back offices to get the work done. The insurance industry contributes advice and counsel and feedback, but the real work gets done by the PR firms that the insurance industry hires.

Guernica: Was it difficult for you to discredit a movie you felt was accurate?

Wendell Potter: It was very difficult. I was beginning to hate my job. I’d look in the mirror and say, “Who is this? How did this happen to you?” But I had a job to do and was being paid quite a bit, so I soldiered on. I wouldn’t have stayed as long as I did if I didn’t believe that the company I worked for was honest and trying to meet the needs of people. I believed I was making some kind of positive contribution. As I was climbing up the corporate ladder, I got to understand more about how the companies make money and how they are so beholden to Wall Street—both investors and Wall Street analysts—and the things that they do to meet Wall Street’s expectations.

Guernica: You worked in the industry for twenty years. It doesn’t seem like it should have taken so long.

Wendell Potter: You don’t really focus on it or understand the significance of it. I’ll admit I knew that Wall Street looked at the medical-loss ratio. I knew it was an important measure. I didn’t know until, frankly, very recently how important it was. As recently as fifteen years ago, the medical-loss ratio in this country was 95 percent. Since then, there’s been great industry consolidation to the point that now there are seven companies that dominate. They’re all for-profit. During the time that this consolidation, this shift to for-profit occurred, the medical-loss ratio has continued to drop. Now it’s around 80 percent. That means twenty cents of every dollar goes to something other than paying medical claims. Just fifteen years ago, ninety-five cents of every dollar went to paying medical claims. This trend is due to pressure from Wall Street. If a company misses Wall Street’s expectations—if the medical-loss ratio starts to inch up—the company will suffer. I’ve seen companies lose 20 percent of their stock value in one day by disappointing Wall Street with their medical-loss ratio.

Our current reality is far scarier than the fear-mongering. What people have now is a corporate bureaucrat who stands between a person and his or her doctor.

Guernica: So are you saying our healthcare system would be better off if medical insurance companies weren’t publicly traded?

Wendell Potter: We would not have the same problems. Just look at what’s happened since 1993, the beginning of the conversion to for-profit status. The two biggest companies now are Wellpoint and United. In 1993, they were very small. They’ve grown to their size and influence through very aggressive acquisition strategies. In Wellpoint’s case, they bought up many non-profit Blue Cross and Blue Shield plans around the country, which have since converted to for-profit status. United has had a similar strategy. Aetna and Cigna are third and fourth in size, and they, too, have grown largely by acquisition. The fixation that Wall Street has with the medical-loss ratio has created huge problems because investors look at that measure even more than they look at earnings-per-share, which is the primary measure that investors look at in most industries.

Guernica: Shifting to President Obama’s plan: critics often say that Obama’s healthcare plan would be detrimental to care because it would take decisions away from doctors and patients and put them in the hands of a government bureaucrat. Is this a legitimate concern?

Wendell Potter: No. But it is one of those talking points the industry repeats every time we have a debate about reform. They said it in 1993. They say it whenever the industry is under threat of increased government involvement. What I’m telling people is that our current reality is far scarier than the fear-mongering. What people have now is a corporate bureaucrat who stands between a person and his or her doctor. That’s much scarier than the specter of more government. In any event, there is nothing in any healthcare plan that is being proposed that would put a government bureaucrat between a person and his or her doctor.

Guernica: Why is a corporate bureaucrat scarier?

Wendell Potter: Because every person who works for a for-profit company knows that the company has to meet Wall Street’s expectations. Every manager of the company has to pull his or her weight to make sure he and his team are doing all that they can to help the company meet that objective. That includes medical directors. Same with the nurses. They know what the company has to do to meet Wall Street’s expectations and to stay in the good graces of investors.

Guernica: So in other words, corporate bureaucrats have a profit incentive to deny care to people who are enrolled in their plans.

Wendell Potter: Absolutely. It doesn’t have to be stated directly to them that you will be paid a particular bonus if you deny X number of claims; it’s known, and it’s part of the culture.

Guernica: You said you’re familiar with the healthcare systems featured in Sicko and believe them to be superior to the U.S. system.

Wendell Potter: They’re better in many regards. No system is perfect. Every system has flaws and challenges.

Guernica: What about the long wait times we’re warned about, and that government-run healthcare would be one step on the path to socialism? Is there any legitimacy to these claims?

Wendell Potter: No. In fact, we can look at the wait times in this country as more horrific than anything you’ll see in the Canadian system, for example. For elective procedures in many of these countries, yes, you might wait longer for some elective procedure. You might wait longer for an MRI than you would in this country because, on a per capita basis, there are often more machines here than in some of those other systems. But life expectancy in almost every one of these other countries is greater than ours. People do not have to wait long for urgent or necessary care. In fact, in many countries it’s more likely that you would be able to get a same-day appointment with a doctor than here.

Guernica: How do you know?

Wendell Potter: I’ve traveled abroad a lot and I’ve studied them. I’ve been a student of statistics of these other systems, so I do know this, and yes, I have been there.

Guernica: Much was made during the Democratic primaries of health insurance contributions to Democrats. I believe Hillary Clinton raked in a record amount from healthcare companies. Do you think these donations have helped stall legislation?

Wendell Potter: Oh, absolutely. Every step of the way. Let me tell you a story. I am a great admirer of Hillary Clinton’s. I think she’s done terrific things for this country and is a great public servant. But money talks and relationships make a difference. These [insurance] companies contribute more to Democrats than they used to, and they’ve begun hiring lobbyists from the Democratic side of the aisle. They look for the best-connected lobbyists. The CEO of Cigna [H. Edward Hanway] wanted to spend a few minutes with Hillary when she was running for president. One of the lobbyists that Cigna hired was known to be very close to the Clintons, and Hillary Clinton, in particular. Lo and behold, she was able to arrange a meeting for [Hanway] to come to Washington and spend a few minutes with Hillary. I don’t think that [Hanway] necessarily persuaded her to see things from his point of view. She’s not a huge fan of insurance companies. But he was able to get in the door and spend a few minutes with her. And that’s what I’m talking about. It’s the influence insurance companies have been able to buy through hiring people who are well-connected, often former members of Congress or former staff members.

Guernica: Then there are the Blue Dog Democrats and their role in holding up legislation. What’s their motivation?

Wendell Potter: The industry has contributed so heavily to the Republicans over the years that they are pretty much assured that every single Republican in Congress will vote exactly the way they want on any issue pertaining to healthcare. This has not occurred just with campaign contributions. It’s also ideology. The industry has been very determined to carve out its niche on the right side of the political spectrum and, along with the business community, be advocates of a free-market approach to any aspect of our economy—and make sure that there is minimal regulation of any economic sector. So there is a great ideological kinship between the insurance industry and the Republican Party. And this is close to the ideology of the Blue Dog Democrats, who tend to be in border states of the south or where there are more Republicans. Industry has been feeding the Blue Dogs talking points and working overtime to make sure they see things from their philosophical and business perspectives.

Guernica: It was reported late last month [July 29] that a tentative agreement was reached with the Blue Dogs in the House that would omit the “public option.” Do you think that’s a good thing?

Wendell Potter: There have been some compromises that have been made to the Blue Dogs. But Nancy Pelosi said today that the public option is not being sacrificed. I think the leadership in the House and Senate will be fierce defenders of the public option. The Blue Dogs are insurers’ best hope of gutting healthcare reform and removing the public option from legislation. So they are very, very important to the industry, which is why you’re hearing so much about them right now.

Guernica: Do you think the public option is important?

The reason I started speaking out is I knew the insurance industry would come out with guns blazing to kill reform. It’s the same old playbook. I know it because I essentially helped write it.

Wendell Potter: It’s essential. Reform without the public option would be far less meaningful and effective. The public option may not go as far as people would like in some ways, but we need a mechanism that controls costs and makes healthcare more available to citizens. It would go a long way toward keeping the insurance industry more honest, as the president has said.

Guernica: Conservatives’ opposition to the public option is confusing. Shouldn’t conservatives welcome a system that gives more choices to the consumer, which is supposed to be a tenet of conservatism?

Wendell Potter: It doesn’t make a lot of sense. On the one hand, they’re saying that [a public option] would put the private sector at an unfair disadvantage, while they’re also saying that the private sector can operate more efficiently. They are trying to have it both ways. But the reality is that the free-market simply does not work in the healthcare sector as it might in other sectors. A public insurance plan wouldn’t need to have the sales, marketing, and underwriting expenses—and would certainly not need to pay executives exorbitant salaries, and would not need to set aside a significant chunk of every premium dollar to pay shareholders—that private plans do.

Guernica: The [July 30] New York Times had a story that said this: “Obama’s ability to shape the healthcare debate appears to be waning as opponents portray the effort as a government takeover.” Apparently conservative messaging is working.

The industry knows through many years of focus group testing what messages scare people. “Government takeover,” is one of those terms.

Wendell Potter: The reason I started speaking out is I knew the insurance industry would come out with guns blazing to kill reform. I knew the tactics they’d be using and buzzwords they’d be repeating—especially through their shills in Congress, media and business. It’s the same old playbook. I know it because I essentially helped write it. I knew that when the time came, they’d be unleashing that crap. And I knew that it would have the impact it’s having on people and Congress. It’s basically a political contest. At first, it seemed like Obama was just going to walk into office and transformative healthcare legislation would get passed. But I knew it would be a contentious fight—that the industry would be throwing everything conceivable to keep significant reform from happening. Because we’re talking about billions and billions of dollars at stake for those companies and investors. But it’s not a lost cause. Over the next few weeks, we will see one hell of a battle in the districts and over airwaves as proponents and opponents of change spend tons of money on TV and radio advertisements. We’ll be hearing fear mongering like we’ve never heard before, but also be hearing, I hope, effective advertising from the proponents of reform.

Guernica: The Times story really attests to the power of opponents of healthcare reform; don’t most Americans favor reform and some type of universal coverage?

Wendell Potter: They are in favor of it, yes. But the industry knows through many years of focus group testing what messages scare people. And the term you mentioned a few minutes ago, “government takeover,” is one of those terms that they’ve tested and know will scare the bejesus out of people. They know that in the past, people have been so afraid of anything that approaches socialism that you’ll hear that comparison all the time; that if we go with reform, we will have a government takeover of healthcare; that we’ll be on the slippery slope toward socialism.

Guernica: But what about programs like Medicare and the Veteran’s Administration? These are large, extremely effective, government-run programs that have been around a long time, despite the slippery slope rhetoric.

Wendell Potter: The health insurance industry knows this. That is why they’re so careful with language. Medicare is far more popular than almost any private health insurance program in the country. And people in other programs you mentioned are certainly very grateful. But many of them don’t know that it’s a public program.

Guernica: But we’ve heard this exact same talk of socialism decades ago during the battles over Medicare, Social Security, Medicaid, etc. And I don’t think very many people want to lose these programs now.

Wendell Potter: Conservatives are so bound to ideology they refuse to take a serious, open-minded look at how for-profit insurance companies have wrecked our healthcare. They don’t want to take the blinders off. What gives me hope is that despite all the lies and all the disinformation that opponents of reform have spread over the years, real reform has nevertheless been enacted. Like the Medicare program during the Johnson years; like the Medicaid program that is such an essential safety net for so many of our people; the Veteran’s program you mentioned. We have plenty of examples of government programs that work great and have done so much for so many billions of people over many years.

Guernica: You’ve mentioned that when you worked for Cigna, you liked your co-workers. You’ve said that you respected your bosses and still do. Have you had contact with them? Are they aware of what side you’re on these days?

Wendell Potter: Oh, there’s no doubt they know what side I’m on. I have not had contact with my former boss or CEO. My former boss was the company’s general counsel [Carol Ann Petren]. She reports to the CEO [Hanway]. I worked and served [Hanway] throughout my career, knew him very well, and like him personally. But he’s one of those people who we just talked about who are committed to privatizing all aspects of the economy. And he’s benefited enormously—earning many millions of dollars in compensation [According to Forbes, Hanway earned over $30 million in 2007]. So has my former boss, also one of the most highly compensated employees [Petren made $2.18 million in 2008]. She is of the same philosophy. I respect their right to have those opinions. But they’re dead wrong.

Guernica: This is an industry that allows people to die so it can increase profits. I would think that it would be difficult to respect people who remain in that industry.

Wendell Potter: When you’re in an executive office in a skyscraper, and you’ve got people bringing your lunch, who take you home in a company-owned limousine with a driver on the company payroll, you get a very skewed understanding of America. You are removed from the reality of how most people live. And the number—46.7 million people without insurance—remains just a number when you’re in that environment. It’s only when you let yourself be around people who are without insurance, who are underinsured, who wait in line... [long pause]

Guernica: Hello?

Wendell Potter: [Choked up] Yes, I’m here.

Guernica: Sounds like this is very emotional for you.

Wendell Potter: Yes. It’s crazy but I still get choked up when I remember the Wise County experience. Talking about it brings back the vision of all those people standing in line in the rain to get care in animal stalls.

Guernica: Did you ever express your concerns with colleagues at Cigna?

The tragic thing about these town hall meetings is how some of these angry citizens are being manipulated.

Wendell Potter: I talked to friends, but I didn’t muster the courage to [talk to co-workers]. When I decided to quit, I thought I’d just kind of go quietly. I announced it as a retirement, but I could have made a lot more money had I stayed. But I was okay with that. I wasn’t ready to go fishing, but I was ready to take a break. At one point, I thought I might have a chance to change things inside the company and the industry. But I realized very quickly that that was just wishful thinking. The industry is controlled by Wall Street investors. These companies are for-profit. Their first rule is to enhance shareholder value. That is what’s important. If what I said hindered a company’s profitability, I was not going to be listened to, plain and simple.

Guernica: What I’m getting at is this: You’ve become a significant voice in the healthcare debate. But there’s a portion of the public that looks at you skeptically. We’ve seen this before—Scott McClellan is a recent example—someone who is in an industry or system, they make a lot of money, they get out and that’s when they start crying corruption. They write a book and make a little more money. Some are left wondering; “If it was such a bad industry, why didn’t you speak up earlier?” Maybe you could have made a difference in the nineteen nineties.

Wendell Potter: I understand that completely. Looking back, I wish there had been a moment when I could’ve spoken up. On the other hand, I needed to spend time in the industry to gain the perspective I have. I bought into the industry and what it was doing for many years. The company treated me very well for fifteen years, and I didn’t want to be fired; I had to think about the needs of my family. So there was a lot I had to think about as I was sorting through everything. But I can’t help people from thinking that. To those that question my motives, I’d just like to say that I’m doing this because I think it’s the right thing to do. And the timing was something that… I don’t know if it would have been better had I done this earlier. Maybe so; I don’t know. But the way it’s turned out may be just as effective. Right now, the debate is at its peak.

Guernica: Let’s talk about these contentious town hall meetings. What role, if any, does the industry play in causing the disruptive, or what Senator Claire McCaskill called “rude” behavior?

Wendell Potter: One of the big PR firms [for] the insurance industry is APCO Worldwide. They’ve represented the industry for quite a long time. They’re skilled at setting up front groups to spread disinformation to challenge proposals. So they will get talking points into the hands of conservative radio talk show hosts and editorial writers at conservative publications. It all comes from the health insurance industry, but they spread this stuff in such a way that their fingerprints are not directly on it. A guy named Bill Pierce works for APCO; he is an executive there. He used to work as a spokesman for Blue Cross Blue Shield and the Bush Administration. So if you called the number for Healthcare America, you would be connected with Bill Pierce’s office at APCO... The tragic thing about these town hall meetings is how some of these angry citizens are being manipulated. When you see these stories about the meetings and how the participants are so concerned about government takeover of our healthcare system, they use the very words that were fed to them by the health insurance industry, not realizing that that’s where they came from, not realizing that they are unwitting pawns of the industry. Because they hear that stuff from people they believe are credible, like Rush Limbaugh or Glenn Beck.

Guernica: What are the chances that the industry is actually busing people in to disrupt the meetings?

I am very aware of the efforts the [healthcare] industry goes to to bus people to Washington. It’s one of the most sophisticated grass-roots operations you will find in any industry.

Wendell Potter: I think indirectly they are. APCO and other PR firms do stuff like that. It would be hard to trace it directly because they go through a lot of trouble to funnel the money in ways that it’s not directly traceable to them. When I say money, of course we’re talking about insurance premiums that people pay, and it’s being used for these purposes.

Guernica: So you’re saying these PR firms could potentially be sticking people on buses and sending them to these town hall meetings in order to disrupt them?

Wendell Potter: Yeah, they know where to go, what kind of organizations to turn to to get that kind of stuff done. There’s no doubt about it. On the other hand, I’m sure there are individuals who show up at these meetings who show up on their own and feel like they need to make sure their voices are heard... But other people there are very orchestrated.

Guernica: When you were with Cigna, did you have any first-hand knowledge of these kinds of tactics?

Wendell Potter: I am very aware of the efforts the industry goes to to bus people to Washington. It’s one of the most sophisticated grass-roots operations you will find in any industry. They have a long list of senior citizens, for example, who are enrolled in the Medicare Advantage plan. Insurance companies will pay for these people to fly to Washington for a day of citizen lobbying. [The senior citizens] will give the impression that they are there speaking on their own, but it’s completely orchestrated by the industry. What these seniors don’t know is that the only way they would lose their Medicare HMO is if the insurance company dumps them because they don’t think they’re profitable enough anymore. That happened back in the nineties, Cigna did it, Aetna did it—all the insurance companies that participated in the Medicare HMO program did it. That’s when Congress reduced the reimbursements a little bit, these big insurance companies dumped seniors by the millions...

Guernica: You’ve said that Cigna purges small businesses whose employees have serious health problems by raising premiums on these businesses until they can’t pay them. Senator Rockefeller recently asked Cigna about this practice, but I believe they denied it.

Wendell Potter: Cigna denied it, but there is evidence in a transcript that Rockefeller has in which the president of Cigna Healthcare uses the exact word: purging. So within the last couple of days, Rockefeller sent them a letter asking them to prove that they don’t purge. Because Cigna is saying they don’t [purge], but there’s evidence that they do. So essentially Rockefeller has caught them in a lie.

Guernica: How do we get other health insurance industry executives to see this from the point of the view of the uninsured?

Wendell Potter: It’s hard. My own process of doing this—it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done in my life. To say: “Okay, I’ve got a good job here, I’ve got a family to support, I’ve got a mortgage, I’ve got kids in college; but I’m going to quit my job and do what’s right”—that just doesn’t happen every day. And when you’re in a company, you also are thinking, “I am making a positive difference?” The people who work at these companies by and large are not evil people. But they only see their small part of it; they don’t see the broader picture of what the industry is doing to our healthcare system.

Guernica: If you had a few minutes in a room with some of these executives—maybe some of your former colleagues and friends like Hanway and Petren—who look only at profits. What would you say to them to get them to change their minds?

Wendell Potter: I’d say: “Look at what has happened to our healthcare system and look honestly at the role the insurance industry has played in that. Be honest as you look at this. You know what I’m saying is true. If you were like me, you probably don’t want to think about it. But look at what I’ve been saying, and you’ll recognize what I’m saying as true. You know it’s true. Do the right thing—which in my view is stepping away from the industry and speaking out.” I would also like to say to the critics of healthcare reform: “Open your minds a little bit and take a realistic look at our healthcare system and what has happened to it and the reasons for it. I think you’ll come to the same conclusions that I did.”

Guernica: Knowing people like Hanway, Petren—do you think they will ever come around to seeing things your way?

Wendell Potter: I’m doubtful. I’ve read that people are basically hard-wired to feel the way they do and see the world the way they do. Many people are just born Republican and Conservative. They’re just inclined to believe that the free market is the best thing regardless of in what sense of the economy it is. They have that element; those are the people who control these companies. They might just be hard-wired to see the world like that.

To contact Guernica or Wendell Potter, please write here.

05 August 2009

A Jewish Valentine? Bring On the Heartbreak

Tu B’Av and No Love

A Jewish Valentine? Bring on the heartbreak

By Tablet Magazine | 7:00 am August 5, 2009 Print This Post

Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom

CREDIT: U.S. Information Agency, via Wikimedia Commons

Today is Tu B’Av, sometimes referred to as the Jewish Valentine’s Day. It marks the beginning of the grape harvest during the Second Temple period, when Canaan’s amorous Jews celebrated Tu B’Av by letting their unmarried daughters dress in white and dance in the fields by the moonlight. “What they were saying,” the Mishna tells us, was “young man, consider who you choose” to be your wife. After the destruction of the Temple, however, and during the exile that soon followed, the holiday fell into oblivion, resurrected only with the establishment of the State of Israel, where it still enjoys as much popularity as its goyish, February counterpart. In the Diaspora, this holiday has little relevance. Who, after all, can seriously celebrate love in August, when the heat and the humidity make even the shortest embrace a sticky menace?

To commemorate this ancient ritual of love, then, we at Tablet Magazine—not the most sentimental bunch—are celebrating with a tribute to love’s darker side. Here are the top ten greatest break-up songs ever written by Jews. Get out that photograph of your ex, let self-pity flow, and listen to what the heartbroken have to say…

'50 Ways To Leave Your Lover
Leonard Cohen

50 Ways to Leave Your Lover: How do I leave thee? Let Paul Simon count the ways.

Famous Blue Raincoat: “You treated my woman to a flake of your life,” Leonard Cohen laments, “and when she came back she was nobody’s wife.”

Idiot Wind: Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of loneliness, was never more cruel than this.

'Bob Dylan
Adam Sandler

“You’re an idiot babe,” he croons, “It’s a wonder that you still know how to breathe.”

Somebody Kill Me: Adam Sandler is the most unromantic wedding singer out there.

Baby Bitch: Gene Ween, otherwise known as Aaron Freeman, has some choice words (cover up the kids’ ears!) for a former lover.

Neil Diamond

Love on the Rocks: Pour Neil Diamond a drink, and he’ll tell you some lies: love on the rocks ain’t no surprise.

Baby Get Lost: Leonard Feather wrote this hit for Billie Holiday (though this version is performed by Franco Tenelli). Rage was never quite so elegant.

(Marie’s the Name) His Latest Flame: It was Elvis’s voice that made this treacherous lover famous, but we have Doc Pomus, born Jerome Felder, to thank for the green-eyed, monstrous Marie.

'Billie Holiday

Through With You: When it comes to breakup song titles, Maroon 5’s Adam Levine prefers the straightforward approach.

Every Man Has a Molly: Say Anything’s Max Bemis wrote candid songs about his personal life, which is why Molly dumped him, which is why he’s asking fans to purchase the band’s merchandise. Isn’t this, really, the story of every relationship?

'Maroon 5
Say Anything