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Robert Ellis Gordon

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Stiletto Road

Posted: 10/28/09 05:42 PM ET

Dear Mr. President:

While I don't know much about the legislative process, I've heard, for months, about something called "reconciliation." As I understand it, this seldom-used maneuver would-- if still available-- enable Majority Leader Reid to obtain passage of a health care bill with 51 not 60 votes. I'm told that were he to do this, the committee he'd have to work through is very conservative. But either common sense or ignorance tells me that Senator Reid has such an overwhelming majority that he could replace the conservative Democrats with progressives. And that the bill that came out of the committee would, consequently, include a public option that's available to all the people, not merely to ten percent.

As Senator Wyden and others have pointed out, this "ten percent" victory is no victory at all. In the absence of true competition, hence accountability, private insurers will continue to raise premiums even as they furnish less and less in the way of coverage. 

I do not believe, cannot believe, that this is what you want: passage of a bill that will impoverish millions. I have sensed from the outset of your campaign that you wished to govern in the spirit of Robert Kennedy who said , "I believe, where there is plenty, poverty is evil." 

Which brings me back to the aforementioned maneuver. If you wish to provide the people with relief, this option-- if still available-- would appear to be the only way to go.

True: if Senator Reid were to do this-- replace the conservative Democrats with progressives-- I'm sure he'd take a lot of heat. But then again, as the great 20th Century satirist George Washington Plunkitt wrote: "Politics ain't beanbag."

Moreover, I suspect that if you insisted that Senator Reid execute the maneuver, he would.

Then again, I'm hardly a Washington insider, hence all of this is speculative in nature.



What do I know that is not speculative? What do I know for certain?

That when I took ill in 1989, I discovered what too many of the newly diagnosed had discovered before me: private health insurance companies didn't like me any more. And this was more than a bit of harmless antipathy. The insurers' actions led me and my doctors to the inescapable conclusion that, for reasons of profit, the insurers wanted me dead and dead soon. To cite one of numerous examples, when my auto-immune disease attacked my blood and I had multiple pulmonary emboli, my then-private insurer refused to cover the Heparin necessary to save my life.

My doctors fought for me. On that and many subsequent occasions.

Most of the battles came to an end when, at the age of 47, I was fortunate enough to be deemed disabled hence eligible for Medicare.

What else do I know for certain?

In October of 2008,  following a five year long "miracle" remission, I had to resign from three jobs when I was hit by a fatal flare. A flare that simply did not respond to what I was told were unprecedented doses of immuno-suppressive intravenous infusions. Several vital organs were under attack, and I was referred to hospice eight months ago.

I know this as well, Mr. President: my state's high risk pool is in jeopardy, and if my secondary insurance is eliminated from the budget, and if I continue to not die on schedule, I'll go bankrupt in a matter of weeks. Given the dire state and current trajectory of the Main Street economy, it's conceivable that I could find myself among millions who live and, yes, die on the streets.

I hasten to add that while you are a compassionate man this is not a request for sympathy. Life is life in all of its vicissitudes, and the question, Mr. President, is how we deal with them. Or, to put it another way, death is a test of personal character, and victimhood does not sit well with me.


So why do I write to you?

Not long ago you delivered a speech that framed health care reform in moral terms and rightly so. And you took it a step further. You used Ted Kennedy's letter to tell us-- rightly so again-- that on this issue, as with few others, we faced a test of national character.

It's elementary hence seemingly absurd to say this. But perhaps it needs to be said: it is the citizens who comprise this nation. Hence our national character is a measure of the integrity and generosity of spirit (or lack thereof) of 350 million individuals. And while you hold the highest office in the land, you too, sir, are a citizen.

I make this absurdly self-evident point for a reason. On this occasion I speak to you not as a constituent or supplicant but as an equal, a fellow citizen. About life. And death. And personal character.

As I near the end of my 55 year journey, I am committed to having a peaceful death. For myself, yes. And, if I complete the necessary work, I hope to leave a measure of that peace for the many who've walked with me.

The road to peace, as you well know, is never peaceful. With regard to death, it is, like all roads to peace, cobbled with sharp stones, some as sharp as knives.

There is physical pain, of course. That can be sharp.

But the stilettos are emotional in nature. How many times did I pass up on an opportunity to do something kind, complete a worthy task, intervene in a manner that prevented another from getting hurt, or perform a simple and life-altering act of forgiveness?

I can't count that high, Mr. President . But in order to die a peaceful death I must acknowledge and assume responsibility for these stilettos.

And so it is with you, Mr. President. And I do not envy you. Merely ten months into your presidency, you are facing a moment of truth that may or may not be surpassed in magnitude by subsequent personal tests. For now, however, this is it: the moment when you tell us and yourself what you are truly made of.


So no, I do not envy you. Nor am I unsympathetic to your dilemma. The great expectations that helped get you elected now do you a disservice. We expect so much of you, far too much, in this age of entitlement and instant gratification. This age of Fast Food Jesus.

Moreover, Mr. President, you are in no way responsible for the hatred running rampant through the land. Nor for the fear that fuels this hatred. Fear of the unknown. Fear of the known. Fear of bearded madmen brandishing box knives who come from far off lands. Men who, in the name of God, made a virtue out of murder.

We saw it without, this perversion of God-- God by whatever name -- with the slaughter of 3000 innocents. But we're blind to the cancer of the fanatic within, and its unleashing is not of your making.

I light a candle for you and your family every night.

And for what it's worth, Mr. President, I like you.

Which is not to be confused with admiration. Oh, I admire your brilliance, your grasp of geopolitical intricacies, your dexterity on the basketball court. I stand with you on most of the issues. But what I like about you is something different. I like your kindness, your earnestness, your devotion to your wife and daughters. I like your commitment to using your manifest gifts to make this country and this world a more peaceful and gentle place.

You are a man who has everything to live for, Mr. President, and I wish you a long and healthy life.

But difficult as this is for me to say to you, that life will one day end.

And if you have forewarning, if you know your death is coming and wish for a peaceful death, you, too, will walk the Via Dolorosa, The Way of Sorrow, The Road of Stilettos. Indeed, Mr. President, no matter what our faith, we all walk the Via Dolorosa. But it is only near the end that some take the time to take note of the path they've been treading; to transform a life of engagement tempered by contemplation into a life of contemplation sweetened by engagement. 

The thoughtful nature of your writings, your anguish over the bloodshed in Afghanistan, and much else that exemplifies the better angels of which you speak, would seem to indicate that you are an introspective man who will take the time to reflect as the end draws near. It's the ultimate teaching moment, as you might put it. The ultimate moment to think, as you already do, about the sort of world you are leaving to the children.

You will lament, perhaps, the numerous perils over which you had no control. And foremost among these perils, right now, are the demagogues who, knowingly or not, are driven by the fear they prey upon. And notwithstanding your call for civil disagreement, the demagogues may prevail. They may succeed in depriving "the other" (whoever "the other" is) of a name, of a face, of that which unites us: our common dreams for our children.

And if those who prey upon fear prevail for a season; if they set neighbor against neighbor on your watch? If they manage to rupture the National Soul by artfully wielding the lie?

That is their Cross to bear, not yours.

But as for that sliver, that tiny sliver of events, over which you can exert a measure of control?

Now we come to it, Mr. President.

As you look back on your remarkable life, you'll scrutinize the actions you took during months ten and eleven of your fledgling presidency. And if you find that you had an opportunity to "get it right" as you put it in that eloquent address, but ultimately chose to not be a statesman, to not risk all--even your re-election--for the sake of the greater good? If you ultimately chose a more politic course that, potentially, albeit inadvertently, could sentence millions to die on the streets? 


Realized or not, the mere creation of that potential may serve to undermine your most precious inner resource: integrity. And so, speaking to you as citizen to citizen, and (if I may be so bold) as friend to friend, I pass this along: health care is, as you have told us, the most profoundly moral issue of our time. And regardless of whether Congress does right by the people or not; regardless of what the demagogues do, even if they prevail for a season, you have set the bar high and must meet it. You must show us and yourself what it truly means to put country first, political expediency be damned. For if you fail this test of personal character, then you, like me-- like all who as the end draws near, hold their souls up to the mirror-- may find a peaceful death hard to come by.



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