In spite of all the attention he attracts and all the power he holds, he makes a point of traveling plainly. His Chevy is uncomfortable for a man of his ex–football player’s stature, and devoid of any touches of luxury but for a small reading light on the dashboard before the passenger seat, which is where he habitually sits. He wears his usual medium blue suits slightly tight, often with somewhat loud neckties. It seems to be an almost conscious effort to depart from the preppie, standoffish, classic Brooks Brothers look his brothers affected. He is, after all, a man of the people, the tribune of the plebs.
Wherever he talks these days, he talks of national health insurance, be it at campaign appearances or hearings of his Senate committee, on a trip to the Soviet Union, or at a hearing of the Democratic midterm convention in Memphis.
“I was in the hospital for seven months,” he tells audiences, “and I got the best possible health care. My father was ill from a heart attack for seven years, and he got the best care. My son was sick with cancer, and he got the best. And I tell you, if it’s good enough for the Kennedys, it’s good enough for the people of the United States.”
They cheer lustily at that line, the labor leaders and the rank and file, the big-time Democrats and the ordinary people who flock to his speeches and rally to his cry. “If it’s good enough for a Kennedy, then it’s good enough for you.” They roll the concept over in their minds as it strikes them. And strike them it does.
Kennedy. The very name connotes power, prestige, glamour. The notion that the average voter can move in the same circles as the Kennedys—even if they are medical circles—may be the most potent political aphrodisiac since Huey Long’s vision of every man a king.
There is no apparent insincerity in Kennedy’s line, however ironically elitist it may be, and he clearly realizes the political payoff it carries. After an old woman, a dental disaster case without a sound tooth in her head, poked her face through the car window at a campaign stop, Kennedy turned around in genuine horror.
“Did you see that woman’s teeth?” he demanded. “I bet she never saw a dentist in her life. That’s why we need national health insurance!”
When asked the hardest question about his national health plan, his all-encompassing, cradle-to-grave, multibillion-dollar proposal to cover every man, woman, and child in the nation, the question that has kept the Congress from passing it and the Carter administration from endorsing it, the question of whether, in fact, it will prove a multibillion-dollar boondoggle that could push the national inflation rate back into double digits, he answers crisply, puffing on his cigar as he talks:
“We offer the only opportunity for effective cost containment with respect to budgeting. We’ve got the only legislation that will do that. Unless you get prospective budgeting, like Canada has, we’re in a never-ending spiral of rising medical costs. The only way you’re going to break it is with a national health insurance that’s going to embrace the issue of equity as well as the health issue.”
He carries a chart with him showing that the cost of health care in Canada has increased at a slower rate than costs in the United States since Canada adopted a national health plan. He points to Canada constantly as a shining example of success, arguing that the same success is ours for the taking. The historical failure of government-imposed cost controls in this country, the mess that Britain’s National Health has become, and the likelihood of massive opposition from the medical community are possibilities he never mentions.
Moreover, doctors are easy targets, and he scores points on them frequently in his speeches. “In Canada, the doctors said they’d go out on strike if the national health plan was adopted. They did—and the death rate went down.”
Invariably, that line draws whoops of derisive laughter when Kennedy uses it out on the stump. Doctors are not popular with the public at large, and people love to hear Kennedy twit them. Just how he proposes to handle the disaster that would result from a nationwide doctors’ strike in the United States he does not say, perhaps he hopes that people would simply stop dying.
Kennedy must face a problem that any man of his background confronts; to be born rich, with the knowledge that he will never want for anything, is an overwhelming burden. No matter how much his father might have attempted to instill the work ethic in him, no matter how much he might have been forced to do chores for his allowance or to apply himself to school work, still, one fact must always have flooded his consciousness: he would never live in need.
The wealthy child is father to the public man. Teddy Kennedy, inspirited by the liberal religion of his brothers, takes this one step further. Why, he asks, should anybody want for anything? Whether necessity or pleasure, whatever he wanted was there for the taking. Why should anybody be less fortunate?
It is an approach commendable for its compassion, but grievously ignorant of the economic hardship Kennedy’s vastly inflationary programs would visit on America’s working poor. While he excoriates the greed of the Business Round Table, he conveniently ignores the real victims of inflation—the people he claims to be intent on helping. No wonder Esquire Magazine dubbed him “the Senate’s Most Expensive Liberal.”