What are the chances that this year's elections will draw out the best and not the worst in human nature?
What are the chances that this year's elections will draw out the bestand not the worstin human nature?
Well, let's see. In early March, radio ads for Texas Gov. George W. Bush featured the earnest voice of a breast cancer survivor. She accused Arizona's Sen. John McCain of opposing breast cancer research, saying he'd characterized it as "garden variety pork." The counterattack to this ad was so swift that the spokeswoman was sorry she'd ever stepped into that ruthless limelight.
Meanwhile, McCain's troops attacked Bush's environmental record in Texas. A radio spot quoted a Sierra Club official to the effect that lauding Bush for environmental progress was like complimenting the Atlanta Braves' John Rocker (master of the high, hard fastball and the low ethnic slur) for his contributions to civil rights.
And so it goes. Students of American history will tell you that negative campaigning is nothing newthe term "mudslinging" dates back to 1890but many of today's politicians seem to have elevated it to an art form. I'd like to think that once the clatter of the party primaries has settled down, those who are aspiring for officenational, state, and localwill function at a more dignified level and appeal to our highest hopes rather than our worst fears.
The channels for communicating those kinds of messages are more available and plentiful than ever. So there's tremendous potential for making this election year a time to ponder our national mission, probe our collective soul, and recapture a sense of American history and destiny.
I hope we're not too jaded to entertain that possibility, and I hope we're not too quick to characterize the candidates as blow-dried Tweedledum and Tweedledee. But I also fear that between now and November we will see more posturing, mugging, and pandering to the lowest common denominator than any reasonable citizen should have to tolerate. Empty words from empty suits may help explain why voter turnout lately is about the lowest it's been in our history.
It doesn't have to be that way. There are plenty of responsible voices in public life, but they don't always get the ink or the prime-time sound bites. Many of those voices belong to doctors, like Howard Dean, the internist who has been elected four times as governor of Vermont. Or State Sen. James S. Forrester of North Carolina, an FP, who will share his views on the noble calling of public life in an upcoming issue. In doing so, he will echo a message that another public-spirited physician, US Sen. Royal Copeland of New York, conveyed in the very first issue of this magazine, 77 years ago.
It's encouraging that so many doctors are active in community affairs today, whether as state legislators, local councilmen, mayors, school board directors, or volunteers. It's a tradition that goes all the way back to the beginning of this country, when Benjamin Rush, a physician, put his name to the Declaration of Independence. In more recent times, I think of Phillip A. Rozeman, a cardiologist in Shreveport, LA, who is heading an alliance of business and education leaders to promote excellence in public schools.
If those voices don't always get heard, the media must bear much of the responsibility. News focuses entirely too much on matters of style over substance. The media seem obsessed by who can win, what they're wearing, and what gaffe they may have committed today rather than what they stand for and what it would mean for the country. Political talk shows thrive on their entertainment value and capacity to outrage.
The quality of public discourse this year is especially important to you, Dear Reader, because health care figures to be a dominant issue. We should expect any aspirant for office to speak intelligently to the core questions, such as: How can we provide Americans with access to decent health care in a way that is both humane and economically responsible? More fundamentally, how can we improve the nation's health by making individual people better? And how can we create a system that enables physicians to do their best?
Along the way, let's not be misled by the rhetoric. I'm suspicious of any politician who engages in gratuitous HMO-bashing. What could be easier?
I don't know just yet who'll get my vote for president, or US senator, or local dogcatcher. I'm saving those ballots for candidates who show signs of genuine courage and leadership, who won't govern by checking out the latest focus groups, who won't have to know which way the wind of public opinion is blowing to figure out where to point the boat.
I want someone who can talk sincerely in terms that make common sense, and not rely on the quick quip or the jargon of the wonks. I will listen to those who can talk about building something of value in our society, something that can last. And I invite you to cast your own ballot below by describing what will be needed to earn your vote.
This year, let's put a moratorium on the name-calling and mudslinging. If I want that nonsense, I can always find the Three Stooges on cable. They toss in hair-pulling and eye-poking at no extra charge.
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Medical Economics magazine
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Jeff Forster. Memo From the Editor. Medical Economics 2000;7:6.