Tag Archives: LBJ

Roszak’s “Making of an Elder Culture”

Few may remember it, but before the advent of Social Security in the 1930s and Medicare in the 1960s, the old were widely viewed as a spent force. Nobody talked about happy retirement, in part because, these were people who remembered only too well the Depression. Few looked forward to leisure worlds because the poor house was too recent in so many people’s minds. Before old age entitlements, tending to the old was viewed as the job of the family. If you didn’t have a family, then it was charity–you joined the begging class. And even if you did have a family, you lived knowing that the young and middle aged couldn’t wait to get rid of you.

The same is more or less true today. Some days it seems the entire city of Washington, D.C., the nation’s capital, is on a mission against the old. Of course, nobody would ever say that. But there is a war against the old going on here in the form of a vigorous, largely uncontested attack on entitlements—a fighting word for conservatives and conservative Democrats who simply can’t stand Roosevelt’s New Deal, Johnson’s Great Society, and everything the stood for.

In his book The Making of an Elder Culture, recently published by New Society, Theodore Roszak, the cultural historian who more than three decades ago wrote The Making of a Counter Culture, sets out some of the grim history of old people in American society, and in doing so places elders within our current political world.

The old were in fact the worst victims of industrialism, primarily because they were not deemed worth saving. They belonged to that class of unwelcome dependents called the impotent poor—those who could not provide for themselves…as comfortable as many middle-class elders may be today, they share with all older people a long sad history of bleak mistreatment they would do well to remember. For generations the old have suffered wrongs inflicted on them by harsh public policy and often by their nearest and dearest….in the modern western world where the old have been seen as the claim of the dreary past upon the bustling forces of progress.

In the early days of the industrial revolution, Roszak writes, “aged workers became poor. The workhouse and county home were little better than the concentration camp. They were fed gruel, bedded down on straw or bare wood…they had no place to turn  save for their children…They were pictured as withered, toothless, bent, lean.’’

You must remember that as recently as 40 or 50 years ago, there was no senior lobby. The political pros never talked about a senior vote. Today all that has changed–yet Roszak sees in today’s entitlement wars a serious threat to the well-being of elders.

In the same way that organized labor was once regarded as a potentially tyrannical force able to achieve its own selfish ends, entitlement critics began characterizing seniors as a threat to the democratic process…

Nobody of any political stripe wants to risk the charge of granny-bashing,but the facts are clear. In the United States, gaining even  modest degrees of security in retirement has been a struggle against business leaders, political conservatives, and free market economists for whom money is the measure of all things.

Always remember, Roszak says, “the well-to-do are the first to tell us that there is not enough to go around.”

In his book, Roszak envisions a society in which rather tan cutting social programs for the old, we will extend them to younger people. Noone would resent Medicare, for example, if we had universal health care for Americans of all ages. He sees a future where the old and the young join to create a new world devoted to common humane goals: ending poverty at all ages, assuring education–laying the planks of a new society on the New Deal and LBJ’s social welfare project. Such ideas face an uphill battle in today’s political culture–but are no less inspiring for that fact.

I’ll be writing more about Roszak’s work in future posts.

Health Care Reform: What Would LBJ Do?

In my last post, I compared the current Democratic leadership to Lyndon Johnson, and speculated that if LBJ were alive today, he might have been able to get a decent health care reform bill through Congress. I suspect he could have done it without at least some of the compromises and concessions to corporate interests, which have now made the Democrats’ legislation—including the public option—so weak that it is getting close to meaningless.

800px-Lyndon_Johnson_signing_Medicare_bill%2C_with_Harry_Truman%2C_30_July%2C_1965

LBJ signs the Medicare Bill in 1965, with Harry Truman by his side

This reminded me of a post about LBJ that I wrote nearly a year ago, as Obama prepared to take office with the promise that health care reform would be among his first priorities. It refers to Johnson’s successful effort to create the Medicare and Medicaid programs–the only single-payer health care this nation has ever known. Like a lot of LBJ’s War on Poverty programs, they were far from perfect. But compared with what today’s Democratic leadership is offering, they were something close to radical, and represented a triumph of political will on Johnson’s part. 

When it came to getting legislation through Congress, LBJ—both as Senate Democratic leader and as president—had skills that make Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid, and Rahm Emanuel, along with President Obama, look like rank amateurs. But more than this, he had the level of commitment—and the spine—required to stand up to opposing interests when it came to a basic need like health care.

I’m going to run most of that post again here, since its relevance has only increased with each passing month.

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December 2008. An NPR story earlier this week included excerpts from Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes, featuring his behind-the-scenes efforts to pass the bill that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

The idea of a Medicare-type program for seniors had been debated for more than 20 years, ever since Harry Truman’s post-World War II calls for a national health care system. But it was Johnson, famous for his arm-twising skills, who finally succeeded in sheparding the legislation through Congress. He did so against the wishes of the American Medical Association and much to the chagrin of conservatives, who saw it as a step down the slippery slope toward socialized medicine.

The Oval Office tapes feature Johnson’s typically colorful language. As NPR describes it, “Just moments after [the] bill…got through a key House committee in March of 1965, Johnson sounds like he’s in no mood to celebrate. He gets on the phone to demand that legislators keep the bill moving”:

“You just tell them not to let it lay around. Do that,” Johnson barks. “They want to, but they might not,” he continues. “Then that gets the doctors organized, then they get the others organized. And that damn near killed my education bill. Letting it lay around. It stinks. It’s just like a dead cat on the door. When a committee reports it you’d better either bury that cat or get some life in it.”

The NPR story is based on an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine by David Blumenthal, who teaches at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and served as an Obama campaign adviser on health care. Blumenthal thinks Johnson’s strategy could be instructive to the new president as he seeks to pass health care reform.

But what Johnson had going for him was not only his skill in dealing with Congress, but his  commitment to expanding Americans’ access to health care, regardless of the cost. In March 1965, he told Vice President Hubert Humphrey:

“I’ll go a 100 million or billion on health or education. I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. And education and health, I’ll spend the goddamn money.”

Ignagni v. Obama: Another Victory for the Health Insurance Industry

For months, even as other Democrats fell by the wayside, Nancy Pelosi has been saying she wouldn’t put through health reform without a “robust” public option. Instead, she this week agreed to a provision that would make any public plan weak to the point of meaninglessness.

In announcing the House Democrats’ health reform plan, Pelosi made it clear that she has abandoned any ideas that the public option’s payment rates should be based on Medicare rates, or otherwise standardized and set by the government. Instead, the government-run  insurance plan will negotiate rates with doctors and hospitals, just as the private insurers do.

What this means is that plan rates under the public option will be pegged to those of the insurance industry, eliminating any real chance that the public option will bring down health care costs by “competing” with the private companies. There is no waffling here. Just complete capitulation to private industry.

Pelosi apparently gave in under pressure from members of her own party. But the real winner in the health reform debate are not the so-called moderate Democrats, or the Republicans, and certainly not Obama or Pelosi or Harry Reid. It is Karen Ignagni, president and CEO of America’s Health Insurance Plans. She called the politicians’s bluff—and won.

She knew from the very beginning, as did most of Washington, that the profit-making industries who control the American health care system would emerge victorious. Billy Tauzin, mouthpiece for Big Pharma, whined about Obama’s duplicity but sat tight, knowing the drugmakers had in the end gotten a sweet deal. Ignagni, likewise, didn’t make threats. She waited, then executed her own double-cross and  amidst  liberal yelps ran right through the opposition without a scratch.

Could anyone have blocked Ignagni’s breakaway run? Not in this crew, that’s for sure. LBJ would have stopped her. Liberals scorn Johnson because of Vietnam. But LBJ had a domestic program that he never lost sight of, and that he refused to concede enitrely to the power of corporate America. It was Johnson, after all, who got the bill creating Medicare through Congress, over the objections of the AMA and a lot of other powerful interests. Neither Pelosi nor the  oh-so-clever Rahm Emanuel has Johnson’s dealmaking abilities–or his spine. 

Separation of Powers: All Eyes Are on Obama, But It’s Congress That Needs to Sieze the Day

Now that the euphoria of the election and inauguration are over, we will soon be reminded of the messy realities that come with having three branches of government. As much as the nation is pinning its desperate hope on Obama, the new president’s success or failure at advancing new policies and changing the way government works depends first and foremost on Congress.

The burning questions of the moment have to do with money–how much to spend, and when, and for what. The president will present his stimulus package to Congess, but it is just a recommendation: All spending measures must originate in the House through the Ways and Means Committee. While they receive none of the attention given to cabinet members, the leaders of this powerful committee are no less  important than the secretary of the Treasury, or the other members of the administration who must go to it pleading for funds.

Right now Ways and Means Committee is chaired by New York’s Charles Rangel, still a forbidable figure despite a growing collection of ethics scandals. In the front tier are Pete Stark of California, Sander Levin of Michigan, Jim McDermott of Washington, and John Lewis of Georgia. It’s a solidly liberal lineup (most are members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus) that is likely to support big public works projects as well as improvements to the social safety net for the poor and the unemployed, the disabled and the elderly.

On the other side is the group of conservative Democrats in the House that calls itself the Blue Dogs. Their numbers and influence have increased in the last two elections, and they have already made it clear that in exchange for gritting their teeth and accepting a big stimulus package funded through Keynesian deficit spending, they’ll be looking for concessions over the long  term in other areas, including old-age entitlements. With 51 members, the Blue Dogs have could monkey-wrench some of Obama’s plans if they choose to vote with Republicans.

We learned just how far an uncooperative Congress can go to undermine a president back in 1994, when Newt Gingrich’s Republican revolution emerged from the back benches and dedicated itself to opposing (and eventually impeaching) Bill Clinton. But it’s been such a long time since we’ve had a strong, popular Democratic president along with a solid Democratic majority in Congress, it’s hard to envision what it might be like.

Those of us old enough to remember them might harken back to the early LBJ years. On the day of Obama’s inauguration, Saul Friedman, the long time reporter for major dailies who now writes about the politics of aging, recalled that time, and the vital part played by a strong, committed Congress.

The murder of John F. Kennedy had given Johnson great power and new stature when I arrived in Washington in 1965 to cover the Congress for the Knight Newspapers and the Detroit Free Press….They were an odd couple; Johnson the southerner who grew up with segregation and Humphrey, the northern liberal who had driven Strom Thurmond out of the Democratic Party on the issue of race. But together, they gave the country activist, liberal government the like of which had not been seen since the New Deal.

But…they did it with the help of a Congress, especially the Senate, filled with people who I believe were deeply committed to politics as public service. Many of them had come from service in World War II into reform politics. And like several of the Vietnam and Iraq veterans now serving, they came to make a difference.

The “names who personified what was best in American politics at that time were in the U.S. Senate,” Friedman writes. These included Humphrey’s fellow Minnesotans Walter Mondale and Eugene McCarthy; Michigan’s Philip A. Hart, who was called “the conscience of the Senate’; Wayne Morse, William Fulbright, and George McGovern, who all stood up against the Vietnam War; Frank Church, who would expose the abuses of the FBI and CIA; and Sam Ervin, who would help expose Watergate; as well as Bobby Kennedy and Ted Kennedy.

The Republicans, Friedman notes, “also included people of stature who believed in politics as public service.” There were also some “louts and know-nothings,” and some rabid segregationists. Nonetheless, he writes,

When the time came, and Johnson wheeled and dealed and appealed to their better nature, Republicans helped Democrats break southern filibusters and to pass a series of landmark civil rights bills, as well as the gems of the Great Society, Medicare and Medicaid and the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, all of which stand today.

Friedman wonders how the new president will fare with a Congress that seems, by comparison, weak-willed and churlish. (In this light, the tragedy of Ted Kennedy’s illness becomes all the more profound.) Will Congressional Democrats, who have accomplished little since winning their majorities in 2006, heed the call to pick themselves up, dust themselves off, and “begin the work of remaking America”? We’ll know soon enough.

Reviving a Dead Cat: LBJ and the Creation of Medicare

An NPR story earlier this week included excerpts from Lyndon Johnson’s White House tapes, featuring his behind-the-scenes efforts to pass the bill that created Medicare and Medicaid in 1965.

The idea of a Medicare-type program for seniors had been debated for more than 20 years, ever since Harry Truman’s post-World War II calls for a national health care system. But it was Johnson, famous for his arm-twising skills, who finally succeeded in sheparding the legislation through Congress. He did so against the wishes of the American Medical Association and much to the chagrin of conservatives, who saw it as a step down the slippery slope toward socialized medicine.

The Oval Office tapes feature Johnson’s typically colorful language. As NPR describes it, “Just moments after [the] bill…got through a key House committee in March of 1965, Johnson sounds like he’s in no mood to celebrate. He gets on the phone to demand that legislators keep the bill moving”:

“You just tell them not to let it lay around. Do that,” Johnson barks. “They want to, but they might not,” he continues. “Then that gets the doctors organized, then they get the others organized. And that damn near killed my education bill. Letting it lay around. It stinks. It’s just like a dead cat on the door. When a committee reports it you’d better either bury that cat or get some life in it.”

The NPR story is based on an article in this week’s New England Journal of Medicine by David Blumenthal, who teaches at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School and served as an Obama campaign adviser on health care. Blumenthal thinks Johnson’s strategy–which included letting Congress take most of the credit–can be instructive to the new president as he seeks to pass health care reform.

But what Johnson had going for him was not only his skill in dealing with Congress, but his  commitment to expanding Americans’ access to health care, regardless of the cost. In March 1965, he told Vice President Hubert Humphrey:

“I’ll go a 100 million or billion on health or education. I don’t argue about that any more than I argue about Lady Bird buying flour. You got to have flour and coffee in your house. And education and health, I’ll spend the goddamn money.”