Read The Pity Party Online

Authors: William Voegeli

The Pity Party

D
EDICATION

F
OR MY PARENTS

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

T
here's a very good chance that I never would have started this book without encouragement from Adam Bellow, who became its editor. Once I did begin writing, there's an even better chance I never would have finished it without his help. I'm grateful to Adam and his colleagues at HarperCollins, in particular Eric Meyers, Broadside Books associate editor, and Tom Pitoniak. I'm equally indebted to Carol Mann of the Carol Mann Agency for her reassurance and wise counsel.

I worked on
Pity Party
to the detriment of my obligations to the
Claremont Review of Books
, and with the help of my colleagues there: Patrick Collins, Lindsay Eberhardt, Christopher Flannery, Charles Kesler, John Kienker, and Ryan Williams. I also thank Brian Kennedy,
CRB
's publisher in his capacity as the president of the Claremont Institute, and Tom Klingenstein, the institute's chairman. I am fortunate as well to be affiliated with Claremont McKenna College's Henry Salvatori Center, and I am grateful to Mark Blitz, the center's director, and Elvia Huerta, its administrator, for their help.

My deepest debt is to Martha and Bailey, my wife and stepdaughter, the best reasons I could have to turn the computer on, day after day, and grind out more paragraphs.

This book is dedicated, with great affection, to Beverly and Robert Jones, and to Carol and the late William J. Voegeli.

C
ONTENTS

D
EDICATION

A
CKNOWLEDGMENTS

I
NTRODUCTION

S
UFFERING
S
ITUATIONS

C
HAPTER
1

H
OW
C
OMPASSION
D
EFINES AND
A
NIMATES
L
IBERALISM

C
HAPTER
2

H
OW
E
XAMINING
L
IBERAL
C
OMPASSION IN A
G
LOBAL
C
ONTEXT
R
EVEALS
I
TS
I
LLOGIC

C
HAPTER
3

H
OW
L
IBERAL
C
OMPASSION
'
S
P
ROBLEMS
A
RE
N
OT
R
ESOLVED
E
VEN
W
HEN
W
E
R
ESTRICT
C
ONSIDERATION OF
I
T TO
D
OMESTIC
P
OLICY

C
HAPTER
4

H
OW
L
IBERAL
C
OMPASSION
L
EADS TO
B
ULLSHIT

C
HAPTER
5

H
OW
C
ONSERVATIVES
H
AVE
C
OUNTERED THE
A
RGUMENTS
P
UT
F
ORWARD IN THE
N
AME OF
L
IBERAL
C
OMPASSION
,
AND
M
IGHT
R
EBUT
T
HEM
M
ORE
E
FFECTIVELY

N
OTES

I
NDEX

A
BOUT THE
A
UTHOR

A
LSO BY
W
ILLIAM
V
OEGELI

C
OPYRIGHT

A
BOUT THE
P
UBLISHER

I
NTRODUCTION
: S
UFFERING
S
ITUATIONS

T
he accomplished actor had read better lines, but none better suited to that particular stage, audience, and moment. Eighteen years after
Superman
had made the absurdly handsome Christopher Reeve a movie star, one year after an equestrian accident had left him a quadriplegic, Reeve addressed the 1996 Democratic National Convention. The amount of federal funding for research on spinal cord injuries, he declared, was deplorably meager. More spending would give Americans afflicted by injuries like his a better quality of life, allow them to become economically productive, and even give them hope for a complete recovery. He went on to urge increased government spending for research on the causes and cures of other ailments, naming Parkinson's disease, stroke, multiple sclerosis, and AIDS, along with famous people who suffered from each. Reeve closed by invoking another man in a wheelchair, Franklin Roosevelt, telling the delegates that FDR's “most important principle” was “America does not let its needy citizens fend for themselves.”
1

Who could hear
that
speaker give
that
speech and object to the additional funding Reeve endorsed? No one, of course—which was the whole point, and the whole problem. The quality of the arguments and evidence Reeve offered was irrelevant, and any rebuttal would have been futile. The strategy of placing him in that setting before a national television audience was not to win a political debate but to preclude one. The emotional force of Reeve's speech reminds us why Aristotle examined compassion, which we treat as a moral virtue, in the
Rhetoric
, discussing it solely in terms of the power to move an audience. He does not mention the subject in the
Ethics
or the
Politics
.
2

Reeve's appearance was perfectly consonant with the central purpose of the 1996 convention: renominating and reelecting President Bill Clinton, who had assured voters four years before, “I feel your pain.” Clinton's skill set included speaking empathy fluently, which only compounded the difficulties of his less-talented vice president, Al Gore, who expressed himself in that idiom forcefully but ineptly, a speaker of a second language never mastered. Gore concluded his 1996 acceptance speech with an account of his sister's deathbed as she succumbed to lung cancer, three decades after becoming a heavy smoker. “And that is why until I draw my last breath,” he told the delegates, “I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.”
3
As the
New York Times
put it diplomatically the next day, Gore “took a chance by speaking about his sister in such raw terms,” given “the thin line in politics between poignancy and exploitation.” The political risks looked even greater after the
Times
joined other publications in pointing out that in 1988, four years after his sister's death, Gore had assured a North Carolina audience that he, too, was a tobacco farmer, and had been one all his life. Gore did not stop accepting contributions from political action committees affiliated with the tobacco industry until 1990.
4

At the 2000 Democratic convention, Gore's first act upon accepting the presidential nomination was to share with his wife, onstage before a television audience, a kiss the Associated Press described as “awkward” and “uncomfortably long.”
5
Even for a notably unsubtle politician, it was a blatant signal to voters that a Gore presidency would, unlike Clinton's, spare the nation bimbo eruptions and amorous interns. What the self-defeating phoniness of Gore's “authenticity” really made clear, however, was that Clinton had already established the outer limit of the Empathizer in Chief role, requiring his successors to try something different rather than attempt more of the same. The next Democratic president turned out to be Barack Obama, who is always effortlessly cool and measured in public. It's impossible to imagine him giving his wife an openmouthed kiss on national television.

So central is the rhetoric of compassion to modern American liberalism, however, that even a reserved politician like Obama relies on it constantly. And, like Gore, he avails himself of the principle that if an autobiographical snippet conveys a politically resonant emotional truth, the speaker has no obligation, and the audience no right, to be exacting about its literal truth. In a 2008 debate against Senator John McCain, Obama said, “For my mother to die of cancer at the age of fifty-three and have to spend the last months of her life in the hospital room arguing with insurance companies because they're saying that this may be a preexisting condition and they don't have to pay her treatment, there's something fundamentally wrong about that.” A 2012 biography of his mother, Stanley Ann Dunham, revealed, however, that health insurance
did
pay for her medical care, and she argued with an insurance company about benefits from a disability policy. When asked by reporters about the discrepancy, the White House did not dispute the book's account, but took what refuge it could in the statement “The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than fifteen years ago.”

Nevertheless, in a subsequent 2012 campaign video Obama attempted to have it both ways, conveying that his mother had suffered because of poor health insurance but without explicitly repeating the contentions he had made in 2008. In the 2012 documentary, Michelle Obama says of her mother-in-law, “She developed ovarian cancer, never really had good, consistent insurance. That's a tough thing to deal with, watching your mother die of something that could have been prevented. I don't think he wants to see anyone go through that.” The film's narrator then explains that Obama's personal tragedy left him sensitive to the suffering of others, and determined to alleviate it: “And he remembered the millions of families like his who feel the pressure of rising costs and the fear of being denied or dropped from coverage.”
6

Obama did not mention his mother at the White House ceremony in March 2010 when he signed into law the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (more commonly referred to as the Affordable Care Act or, simply, “Obamacare”). Standing next to him at the desk, however, was an eleven-year-old boy, Marcelas Owens, whose mother had died of pulmonary hypertension in 2007, at age twenty-seven. She “didn't have insurance and couldn't afford the care that she needed,” Obama said. He went on to say he was also signing the bill for Natoma Canfield, whose sister was in attendance. Canfield “had to give up her health coverage after her rates were jacked up by more than forty percent,” the president explained. “She was terrified that an illness would mean she'd lose the house that her parents built, so she gave up her insurance. And now she's lying in a hospital bed, as we speak, faced with just such an illness, praying that she can somehow afford to get well without insurance.”
7
(As of October 2013, Canfield had gotten better but not well—she still had leukemia, but was living at home rather than in a care facility. She had also gotten insurance, not as a result of the Affordable Care Act, but through the biggest government health programs in operation prior to 2010, Medicare and Medicaid.)
8

It was inevitable that the signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act would present ordinary Americans whose sufferings could be attributed to defects in the health care system, ones the new law purported to fix. Such citizens, after all, were featured prominently in the campaign for the bill. A series of town hall meetings in 2009 followed the same format: a local resident who suffered from both a specific ailment and a problem with health insurance would describe those troubles, then warmly introduce the president. In one city, it was a father whose family's health insurance was nearly canceled after the costs of treating his son's hemophilia approached the policy's lifetime cap. “If you think that can't happen to you or your family, think again,” Obama said. At another forum, a woman who lost her insurance after being diagnosed with cancer introduced him. Yet another event featured a woman who could not find insurance because of a preexisting condition.
9
At a Capitol Hill “Forum on What Health Insurance Reform Means for Women and Families,” three women told an audience what they had endured trying to afford health care and insurance under the existing system. Mrs. Obama then praised them for recounting their experiences because “these stories are happening all over this country, not just for thousands of women—for millions of them. For two years on the campaign trail, this was what I heard from women, that they were being crushed, crushed by the current structure of our health care. Crushed.”
10

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