The Role of Chance in History and National Health Care Reform by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH

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by Steven Jonas, MD, MPH
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
crossposted on
September 2, 2009

On the morning of June 18, 1815, it rained in Belgium. A chance event. Napoleon Bonaparte, triumphant in his “100 Days,” felt that he had to wait for the ground to dry before launching his main assault against the Duke of Wellington’s men. Had that not happened, Napoleon might well have achieved his aim of destroying the British force before they could get organized and before their main supporting Prussian force could arrive later in the day. Thus, the outcome of the battle that has been famous since that day might have been such that it would have been more of a footnote to the history of Napoleon’s re-establishment of his Imperium than the metaphor for his final defeat. But it did rain.

It has been said as well that one additional reason that Napoleon delayed that morning was that he had had a bout of diarrhea; a chance event. Again, if it possibly were not for something he happened to have eaten, the outcome might have been very different. He might not have waited so long for the ground to dry. Why Sen. Jim (gays should not be allowed in the classroom) DeMint would have had to have chosen a different metaphor to describe the true aims of his party in the so-called “health care reform debate.” That is, of course, the destruction of the Obama Presidency. The role of chance in history.

On July 18, 1969, Mary Jo Kopechne was attending a party that Sen. Edward M. Kennedy was giving on Chappaquiddick Island, MA, just off Martha’s Vineyard, for the “boiler room girls,” veterans of Sen. Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 Presidential Campaign staff. The official story is different, but what really happened, according to an eyewitness whose name must of course remain confidential (and apparently will forever) is as follows. Rather intoxicated, Ms. Kopechne left the party, went to Sen. Kennedy’s car, curled up in the back seat and went to sleep. Later, Sen. Kennedy, rather inebriated himself, left the party with another young lady (destination unknown), made that wrong turn and drove off the bridge. Neither he nor his passenger were aware of the presence of the sleeping Ms. Kopechne. If they had been, they presumably would have pulled her out of the car when it went into the water. Like “Waterloo” if it had not rained, if Sen. Kennedy had been aware that Ms. Kopechne was in the back seat, “Chappaquiddick” would simply have become some long-forgotten footnote to history.

On June 18, 1972, as I usually do to this day, I scanned the front page of The New York Times. I noticed a secondary lead about a break-in that had occurred at the Democratic National Committee offices in the Watergate complex in Washington, DC. I had known of Richard Nixon and his political thuggery since he ran his first red-baiting campaign for Congress against the totally unsuspecting, mild-mannered, five-term Representative Jerry Voorhees in Southern California. “Nixon’s behind this,” I said to myself.

Well, yes. But the word “Watergate” never would have entered the vocabulary nor would its third syllable have been applied to so many scandals since that time, if by chance, a security guard had not noticed tape applied to several door locks in the complex. Frank Willis simply removed the tape and took no further notice, the first time around. But then retracing his steps about an hour later, he noticed that the locks had been re-taped. At the point he called the police. Some months later, once James McCord sent his letter to Judge John Sirica in the spring of 1973, the unraveling began. Had Frank Willis not noticed the tape, twice, or had G. Gordon Liddy’s and E. Howard Hunt’s grounds men not been such incompetent burglars, Nixon would have finished his term and the word “Watergate” would simply have referred forever to that particular building complex. But chance did play the role it did.

So why am I telling, re-telling these stories? Because “Waterloo” and “Chappaquiddick” and “Watergate” all are related to the current health care “reform” mess. At the level just of naming, “Waterloo,” as noted above, is what the GOP wants to create for President Obama, using his fairly modest health care system reform proposals as their vehicle. Much more importantly in relation to health care reform, “Chappaquiddick” is the primary reason why Sen. Kennedy never became President Kennedy. If Sen. Kennedy had known that Ms. Kopechne was in that back seat and had managed to pull her out alive, by 1976, the incident would have long-forgotten. He almost certainly would have gained the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. Jimmy Carter would have gone on to become just another anonymous Southern governor. And while in his 1976 campaign, Carter promised the enactment of national health insurance (I heard him do it live at the American Public Health Association Annual Meeting that year), a President Edward M. Kennedy almost certainly would have delivered it.

But if “Watergate” had not occurred, it is very likely that we would have had a national health insurance program in place before the 1976 election. In the spring of 1973, just as the bungled burglary was on its way to becoming “Watergate,” President Nixon sent a comprehensive, well thought-out national health insurance bill to the Congress. Ironically it was introduced in the Senate with an impassioned speech by Bob Dole. He was the same man who 20 years later lead the charge against the Clinton Health Plan, a plan that had much in common with the one about which Dole had waxed so eloquently for President Nixon.

But Nixon was already beginning to lose political traction, well before the Congressional hearings that lead to his resignation the following year. The Democrats were already beginning to smell blood in 1973. If they had not been, Sen. Kennedy, already the Senate Democrats’ leader on national health insurance, might have been inclined to work with Nixon and come up with a truly bipartisan plan. After all, in those days there were many more Hugh Scotts and virtually no Jim DeMints on the Republican side. However, nothing came of the Nixon plan, in major part because of Watergate, that chance of history. And that indeed, was the last best chance we have had for establishing a true national health insurance system in this country.

Finally, there is the sad footnote of the cause of Sen. Kennedy’s recent passing: the chance occurrence of a relatively rare but surely fatal form of brain cancer. For if Sen. Kennedy had not contracted a glioblastoma multiforme, just think how different the current Senate process would be. It would the Senate Health Committee, lead by a Sen. Kennedy in full voice, that would be leading the charge. It would be Sen. Kennedy, in full voice, rallying the troops all across the country. Sen. Baucus would have been the historical footnote he should have been. Sen. Dodd of Connecticut, the first home of the nation’s insurance industry, and compromised of course by those connections, would have been an ally, not a barely heard-from non-leader. The battle even for a “reform” that doesn’t come close to what President Nixon of all people proposed in 1973 may well be lost to the Big Lies of the Republican Scream Machine. The role of chance in history. In this particular case, how sad an outcome over 40 years for the people of the United States.

Steven Jonas, MD, MPH is a Professor of Preventive Medicine at Stony Brook University (NY) and author/co-author/editor of 30 books. In addition to being a Columnist for BuzzFlash, Dr. Jonas is also a Contributing Author for TPJmagazine; a Featured Writer for Dandelion Salad; a Special Contributing Editor for Cyrano’s Journal Online; a Contributing Columnist for the Project for the Old American Century (POAC); and a Contributor to The Planetary Movement.


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