Bob Franken

Health Care Reform: Oh the Games That They Play


Isn’t it great to have the media around? For public officials, they’re always handy to blame when retreating in a big hurry from something the officials said. Case in point: White House spokesman Robert Gibbs claiming news reports that the administration was floating trial balloons about abandoning health care reform’s public option were overblown. Never mind that that’s exactly what happened.

It’s so interesting to watch all the gamesmanship underway as reform opponents and proponents use every tactic in their negotiating bag of tricks. All the uproar at town halls, all the misrepresentations, all the straw men, and, yes, the trial balloons — these are tried and true techniques. As are all the leaked stories, like the one in the Washington Post about how the “Debate’s Path Caught Obama by Surprise.”

Yeah, right. The White House is Casa Blanca. And they are “shocked, shocked.” Either they’re playing games with the press or they’re rank amateurs. (And we all know which one: These guys are professional game players.)

It’s kind of funny to watch. Here you have a president who rode the “Change You Can Believe In” wave to Washington. Now he’s engaging in the same-old-same-olds that were first refined at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia. Lobbyists are calling the shots, just like they have since inventing themselves in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, keeping Ulysses Grant happy. When their behind-the-scenes maneuvering needs a boost, they bring out impassioned supporters. How quaint.

And when administration strategists want to try out ideas, they carefully prepare a spokesman, or in this case a spokeswoman, with exact wording designed to get a precise interpretation by the press. In this case, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius could later blame “a slow news day” as cover for her protestation she was misunderstood. That is so old-fashioned, it precedes female suffrage.

In modern times, it brings to mind a huge particle accelerator that races matter and anti-matter around in hopes that the collision creates something that . . . uh . . . matters.

What’s so intriguing is how breathlessly we reporters chase after a story even though, if we thought about it, we could probably write it beforehand.

Of course we can’t do that. For starters, someone might decide we’re not really needed. Not only us but the lobbyists who make such big bucks, and the politicians who get elected so they can trot out one controversy after another and repeatedly trot on the same ground.

This is a true story: Years ago, I was doing a live interview with a congressman who was in another city. A minute or two in, I lost the audio. He could see and hear me, but I couldn’t hear him. What was I to do?

What else? I asked the next questions and guessed at his answer. Then I asked a follow-up and guessed again. It worked. When someone told him later what happened, he responded, “I thought he asked pretty good questions.” He was amazed. He shouldn’t have been. We were just filling in the usual blanks.

The viewers didn’t seem to notice either. Of course, it’s entirely possible they weren’t really paying attention. They probably had the right idea: As we watch the health care saga unfold, we need to remember that it’s simply an old story with a new title, where all that’s important is between the lines. Just where it’s always been. Maybe it’s time we all shake things up by asking the questions that ensure this tale doesn’t have an unsatisfying ending. For a change.

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