Thursday, August 27, 2009

Cronkite, Hewitt and Kennedy

The recent death of three giants in my life is sad as well as cause for reflection. Walter Cronkite, Don Hewitt and Senator Ted Kennedy each made an indelible mark on their vocation as well as this country. Their legacies stand out for all who follow.

Walter Cronkite was an icon in his industry. He achieved greatness because of his principled and resolute commitment to accuracy, fairness and decency. He reported the news as it happened. No ruffles and flourishes, rather a straight and unadorned presentation of the facts as he knew them. His approach was the same for Watergate and the Vietnam War as it was for a local fire. He loved a good story. His competitive juices drove him to seek the truth and impelled all those who worked with him. This was most apparent during his historic coverage of the assassination of President John Kennedy and man's first landing on the moon. Sure he suffered ratings setbacks along the way, especially early on to NBC's Chet Huntley and David Brinkley, but, as any good sailor, he stayed on the right course. He was the reason I went to work for CBS News.

Don Hewitt created the most successful television news broadcast ever, 60 Minutes. His formula was simple: "tell me a story." He entered television when the medium was in its infancy. "We were just making it up," one of his colleagues would say of those times. Don's creativity, kinetic personality and youthful exuberance were instrumental in building the foundation, the approach and lingo that are still today television news. His flair and brashness got him fired as executive producer of the CBS Evening News in the early sixties. He was devastated but he was not defeated. He took some time to pursue his idea of creating a "Life" magazine for television that included three fifteen minute pieces. He persuaded Mike Wallace and Harry Reasoner to do a pilot and then spent weeks trying to get CBS to air the program. His force of personality and tireless devotion to this project got him a time slot and the rest is history. I was fortunate to work closely with this human dynamo for many years.

Senator Edward Kennedy was the youngest brother in a family filled with ambition and promise. And after the tragic deaths of his brothers, Joe in World War II, and Jack and Robert at the hands of assassins, the torch was passed to Teddy. He became a father figure to all 13 of their children. But the burden of expectation wore heavily on his shoulders. And he feared assassination, once reportedly saying, "I know that I'm going to get my ass shot off one day, and I don't want to."

Senator Kennedy became more reckless and wild, as amplified by two headline grabbing events. In 1969 he drove his car off a bridge on Chappaquiddick Island leaving 28 year old Mary Jo Kopechne dead. He did not report the incident for several hours, later saying he made a mistake. And in 1991 his nephew William Kennedy Smith was charged with raping a woman after a night out with the Senator during Florida's spring break. Smith was acquitted, but Kennedy was damaged.

In 1980 Senator Kennedy tried to unseat incumbent Democratic President Jimmy Carter. I remember covering the rugged campaign and witnessing the Senator's erratic performance from stop to stop. Reporters called it "The Bozo Zone." And the end came when Kennedy stumbled through an answer to CBS News correspondent Roger Mudd's question, "Why do you want to be President?" He could not clearly and resolutely state a reason. And I believe he really never wanted to be president.

In 1991 Senator Kennedy met his beloved wife Vicki and settled down. At the time of his death he was one of the most prolific and respected people to ever have served in the United States Senate.

Each of these men made history, made a difference with their lives. Each of them sailed into the wind. A long the way the faced unimagined challenges. Each of them overcame failure with great success. We owe each of them our thanks and we can learn a lot from each man's journey.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Health Care at the Forum

There isn’t a more striking symbol of America’s health care crisis than the thousands of people who are lining up this week outside the Los Angeles Forum waiting for treatment. One patient put it succinctly, "If everybody in this country were in the situation my daughter and I are in, they would have a whole different view of (the health care debate)."

Many of those in the queue have jobs but they do not have adequate health care. In many cases the employer does not provide enough coverage. Still it seems a bit ironic that the nonprofit Remote Area Medical Volunteer Corp (RAM), whose mission is to provide free health, dental and eye care to poor or under served areas around the globe, is turning people away in Los Angeles. This is because of the heavy demand, and because RAM does not have enough volunteer doctors. One RAM worker compared the need in Los Angeles to the poorest parts of India.

Yet this unfortunate scene is far from an antidote for the radical and misleading assertions being screamed aloud at town hall meetings across the country in the health care debate. “Death panels” and “eugenics” are among the outrageous lies being spun by those seeking to benefit, either politically or financially, by killing health care reform.

In a country of more than 300 million people there is bound to be a small fraction that absolutely believes President Obama wants to kill grandma, or that the president is a Nazi. These are the kind of folks who make up the core audience for Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin, all of whom everyday feed their loyalists the red meat of socialism and government gone wrong. Beck's and Limbaugh's few million loyal listeners never miss a minute of their shameless diatribes. After all, these radio commentators get paid an enormous amount of money to incite a national ruckus, and their audiences love it. You are right Mr. President, it sure plays well on television.

Protesters don't want to hear the truth. Like that there are no death panels in the government's health care reform proposals. They believe that government gotten too big and is not true to the wishes of our founding fathers. In fact, some of these folks are joining local militias perhaps with an eye to "one day taking our country back!" From whom? It's very scary.

For the past decade America has been caught up in a great ideological feud between left and right that has perhaps been more polarizing than at any time in our history, except for the period leading up to and during the Civil War. The feud is being amplified and accelerated by technological advances.

At the core of the feud is the role of government in each American's life. And a wasteful, inefficient and bloated government is easy to criticize. It is also easy to criticize those elected officials who lie and cheat. Or those who want to spend taxpayer money on corporate jets. And what of a government that mishandles the economy and yet saves the rich bankers during the worst economic downturn in decades? One Wall Street banker made more than $700 million, yet the unemployment rate is unacceptably high and foreclosures are too.

A large number of well-intentioned Americans are "mad as hell" and say they are not going to take it anymore. There is a lot of pent up emotion and concern in our populace. They feel no one has been listening to them, and hot August days are especially conducive to raising the heat in town hall meetings across the nation. The complaints and cries for help have become louder, especially at the extremes. But there is nothing to fear. This is American Democracy at work.

Most Americans are smart enough to see through the fog of distortions, fabrications and flat out lies being offered up about health care. They know that all politics is local and that hypocrisy runs deep in DC. They know that many Senators and Congressmen are being well funded by the health industry. That many elected officials will do what is best to assure their own survival.

Most Americans agree that this country's health care system is broken. There are 46 million uninsured people in the U.S., and that number is growing every day. They know that health insurance companies have enjoyed record profits while co-payments have gone up and “pre-conditions” and other loopholes are impeding access to quality care. They see it every time they need care.

President Obama must continue to aggressively push his agenda and highlight its benefits. They include making health care accessible to all, making it affordable for everyone and "bending the curve" of health care costs, which are out of control and are a tremendous drain on our economy. Proponents must also speak out with a clear voice.

Few Americans are happy with our current system. Just ask anyone standing in line at the Los Angeles Forum.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Catfish Sweepstakes

We have reached an important crossroads in our household and I am caught in a dilemma. We have only one fish remaining in Zoe's fish tank.

There was a time when this tank was the center of her universe. It was a mini-metropolis of sea life swirling and and splashing amidst the fake seaweed and ceramic castles. We always had tropical fish, but for a couple exceptions never any goldfish. We had every kind at one point or another, and many had names along the way.

Like many families we began by overfeeding the fish. The water would turn foggy and little particles would float around stirred up by the electric filter. After a week great algae would grow all over the tank fed by overly abundant food and light. All that is necessary is a pinch of food every other day and a moderate amount of light.

The water filter continuously buzzes and hums around the clock. Our guests stay downstairs, one floor below our bedrooms, and often ask to turn the filter off when they go to bed. It's okay with us as long as someone remembers to turn it back on in the morning.

Before long, Zoe's interest in the fish began to diminish. She had moved on to hamsters and guinea pigs. By the time we got Zoe a dog, she wasn't ever visiting the tank. That left it to me to maintain the tank, change the filters and wipe off the algae. Life sure is resilient! The algae just keeps coming back.

This past weekend I found the silver fish dead, stuck in the seaweed. That means a 4 inch long catfish is the sole (sorry for the pun) resident. All the rest have gone on to their final resting place at the end of the sewer pipe. But Nanny Karen says catfish can live to be 15 years old. Considering we have had this one for maybe 6 years, we still have a decade ahead of us with the catfish. That means cleaning tanks with filters that buzz and make overnight guests want to hit the switch.

Don't get me wrong, the catfish is just fine. It sticks to the side of the tank and minds its own business. Of course, it has no competition. We feed it every couple days, and I clean the tank every two weeks.

So what do we do? Anybody want a really sweet catfish as a starter for your collection, or a partner?

Dear readers: Should the catfish LIVE or DIE? Post your answer as a comment. Thank you

Friday, August 7, 2009

Healthcare Smackdown

Fed by disinformation, delaying tactics and disruptive behavior many recent local townhall meetings have morphed into world wresting federation smackdowns. It is time for President Obama to assume more of a leadership role on health care or he and America will suffer a serious defeat.

Currently health care legislation is in the intensive care unit on Capitol Hill where Senators and Congressmen are struggling to put together a consensus on several incredibly complicated and controversial issues. For instance, how do we cover everyone? How do we offset the enormous costs projected from a new plan? Should there be a federal option? How do we make certain that those who are happy with their current health care will be able to keep it? Is it appropriate to include voluntary end of life counseling?

Enacting health care legislation is certain to impact just about everyone in some fashion, so there is an enormous amount at stake. And emotions are running high as Congressional committees continue to wrangle over the complicated details of a plan. It is an ideal atmosphere for exploitation by special interest groups, who spend millions of dollars on campaign donations and public relations to protect their profits, and for good old politics as usual.

Take former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin, a favorite among conservative Republicans. On her Facebook page she declared President Obama's health care plan is "evil." She posted, “The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama's 'death panel' so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their 'level of productivity in society' whether they are worthy of health care." Of course, she knows President Obama has made no such proposal.

Conservative talk show commentator Sean Hannity's Web site displayed a banner, "Become part of the mob," referring to Congressional townhall meetings. The Website Tea Party Patriots circulated a memo reading in part, "Yell out and challenge the Rep's statement early." It went on, "Get him off his prepared script and agenda...stand up and shout and sit right back down." Conservative radio talk-show host Rush Limbaugh said that the administration's health care logo is similar to the Nazi symbol. Glenn Beck, another conservative host, exhorted his audience to join in the ruckus, as did many local Republican organizations throughout the country. Of course, now some Democrats and unions are fighting back. Sure, free speech is great as long as you agree with me!

Critics say, "What's the rush?" Today 45 million people are uninsured. More are being added to that number every day as people lose their jobs in this difficult economy. Those without coverage go to hospital emergency rooms when they need care, and the costs are ultimately passed on to everyone else. America already spends more money on health care than any other industrialized country, yet those countries offer health care to everyone. So there is a moral imperative to do something now.

Beyond that, today every American is feeling the effects of increasing health care costs, rising at about 7% per year and projected to reach $4.3 trillion in ten years, or about 20% of our economy. Employer health care costs are going up dramatically as well, and they are eating into profit margins and being passed along to the employees in the form of reduced coverage or higher co-payments. And if you are unfortunate enough to get sick you are likely to find out your plan does not provide adequate coverage, or you may be dropped from your plan in the future because of a "pre-existing" condition. No wonder health insurance companies are making huge profits.

The American health care system is innovative, for sure. But it is also inefficient. Critics cite waste, duplication and little built in incentive to control expenses as part of the reason for spiraling costs. President Obama has proposed a lower cost government alternative to compete with health insurance companies. He has pledged that those who like their current health plan can keep it. But opponents charge that this is a Trojan horse for a government run system. For instance, as former Governor Palin noted, "Who will suffer the most when they ration health care...the sick, the elderly and the disabled, of course?"

Many Americans are concerned that a new health care plan will add to the already burgeoning national deficit. While President Obama's goal is to lower the trajectory of the growth in health care costs, it is estimated that a new plan will add at least $1 trillion in additional costs the federal budget. Congressional negotiators are scrambling to find ways to offset this cost through savings and taxes on the rich.

These are but a few of the flashpoints that have arisen in this health care debate. Almost everyone agrees something has to be done about health care costs, but the devil, as always, is in the details. And given the recession, the government's missteps in managing the financial crisis and the political polarization that divides our country, cynicism and distrust are rampant. People are concerned about the unknown.

Disruptions, distortions and disinformation by opponents, many financed by the health industry, are beginning to wear on public opinion and will delay long overdue and much needed reform. So it is time to lower our voices, to listen to the facts, to be civil and thoughtful in our discussions of this critically important issue. After all, when it comes to health care we all know that the status quo is unacceptable.