On a recent road trip I found myself on a brief stop in Eureka, Illinois, a small, tree-lined town of modest hills in the central part of the state. Eureka is the home of Eureka College, the alma mater of former President Ronald Reagan. With some time to spare, I decided to visit the Ronald Reagan Museum on the college's campus.
The museum's tribute to the college's most famous C-student graduate is modest in size. Among the collected letters and memorabilia on display there is little to dispel Reagan's reputation as an intellectual lightweight. Hollywood memorabilia, yes, rigorously delineated expositions of political thought, well, not exactly. Instead, dewy letters to Nancy and movie publicity photos (including that one with Bonzo the chimpanzee) charm visitors from under glass.
But there was one item I found intriguing. An old vinyl record album from 1961 displayed a dapper Reagan posed next to a provocative title: "Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine." Reagan's concern on the recording was a bill then in Congress to finance medical care for all Americans over age 65. This was the legislative initiative that in 1965 would become law as Medicare.
As a "free-market" ideologue, Reagan ludicrously painted the Medicare initiative as just a short step from the dreaded future of the Bolshevik collective (or, at least, the socialism of Norman Thomas and the Socialist Party). The recorded speech was also more than just a personal project by a crackpot voice from the right-wing wilderness. In fact, Reagan's lecture on the evils of "socialized medicine" was sponsored by the American Medical Association (AMA).
It's hardly a news flash that this C-student turned B-movie actor was already earning an F in social policy long before his see-no-evil act as the President in denial of the AIDS pandemic. For a career spent regurgitating folksy bromides about freedom, fair play, and other nice ideals, the old studio actor in truth was never more than a facile card reader for America's most well-heeled and rewarded. When it comes to health care, Reagan spoke for those who needn't bother themselves with such trivialities as the cost of monthly health insurance premiums, co-payments, deductibles, and other concerns more suitable to "the help" who ran Reagan's ranch.
The story of Reagan's LP recording against the dangers of socialized medicine is resurrected in Michael Moore's new film, SiCKO. It's one of many educational lessons Moore offers from the sordid story of how American health care has long been sacrificed to the greed and folly of the "free market." In SiCKO, it's also mostly "the help" who do the talking. From customer service reps for managed care to a retired machinist with heart problems to cancer patients and injured 9/11 volunteers, Moore lets ordinary Americans bring to life the broken reality of our health care system. He takes the same approach when he investigates national health care in Canada, England, France, and Cuba. In these countries he discovers regular folks and medical personnel who consider universal, government-sponsored health care as indelible a part of the civic landscape as the way Americans might view their local fire department.
Give Moore credit. With SiCKO he has overnight taken the proposal for single-payer, government sponsored national health care from the fringes of national political debate to center stage. In doing so he brands for-profit health care as immoral, and calls for the elimination of insurance companies from the health care system. It's a tour de force exposition of the perversity of turning health care into a commodity. More positively, SiCKO is an exposition of social democratic values that say society has an obligation to care for people in time of need. In this sense, SiCKO is less a movie about health care "reform" than a bold and brilliant vision of what our society could be, if only human needs came before profit.
SiCKO also puts to shame the mostly turgid debates over health care "reform" that have long hung over the stale air of American politics. In truth, the last quarter century both major parties have basically acquiesced while corporate America colonized the health care system. Even the Clinton administration's complicated mess of a reform initiative sought in the end to preserve the insurance-based system, seeking a more rigorous "managed competition" of employers and insurers for the benefit of expanded coverage. The plan's fatal mistake was that it was a conundrum built on a desire for compromise with the insurance industry. But instead of compromising the industry declared war, opposing what they viewed as unholy government interference in their pursuit of profit.