America: A Lot Different, A Lot Better?

America: A Lot Different, A Lot Better?

By Richard Reeves - August 22, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- A year ago, my wife and I went to her physician's office here and the doctor began: "So, I understand you to want to talk about end-of-life issues."


There was a mistake in my wife's records. Happens all the time, but that did not make it less frightening. Fear is always a passenger when hospitals and health are the destination.

But of course we have talked about such things between ourselves: burial or cremation, grave sites, the children and grandchildren, last wills and testaments, "living wills," hospices, pain medication, extraordinary measures to prolong life. It is part of the dialogue of family and health care. So I have real contempt for the people who think they can manipulate the current national debate with stupid, if somewhat effective, talk of fear itself, of "death panels," of Nazis.

Some of them are just stupid -- they can be forgiven for that -- people who do not understand Medicare is a government program. Some are selfish or cautious, many of them old people who understand very well that Medicare is a good deal, and they don't want to share the government's patronage with others. That motivation is certainly shared by some of the 75 percent of Americans who believe they have satisfactory health insurance (whether or not that is true) and are worried that they will be the losers if insurance is provided in one way or another to the other 25 percent.

As they wave flags and shout at congressmen, I have no doubt they love their country. I just wish they had more faith in it. The people running the country politically are not trying to kill old people; they are trying, in their very political way, to move us a little closer to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Health care is a big part of that.

Having said all that, I don't think the roar of the crowd is about health care at all. It is about change. It is, to quote the current president, about change we can believe in -- or not believe in.

Change and fear are synonyms for many people. Many have lost too much hope and even more optimism, the important parts of American exceptionalism, particularly many old enough to buy the "government is the enemy" lines quoted by an older president. Government may not be perfect, but those of us who have been spending more time around the health care system than we ever wanted to, learning things we never wanted to know, know the United States government is more fair and much easier to deal with than insurance companies.

Many of the people afraid of health care reform, and the politicians pandering to their fears, long for good old days that never were, days when, not incidentally, they were younger and healthier and more optimistic. I think often of the great movie "Atlantic City," when an aging hustler played by Burt Lancaster is complaining constantly to a younger crook about how much better things used to be. They turn a corner, the young guy says, "Wow, look at that ocean." Lancaster says, "You should have seen it in the old days."

We live, happily I'd say, in a time of change. Life is better, not least because advances in medical science have extended vigorous middle age. Are we ready to give up antibiotics and the 36 hours of Cialis? And the president we chose, rather enthusiastically, most of us, could not be more different than the old days. That scares many people, some so much that they want to walk around with assault weapons to save America from itself.

American doesn't need saving. What's happening is essentially generational. We are becoming a different America, not your father's America. The last best hope is less white, less Christian, less predictable, but still just as majestic as the ocean or the stars and stripes. Get used to it.

Copyright 2009, Universal Press Syndicate Inc.

Richard Reeves

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