The Year Of the Camel

By Leonard Fein

Published December 30, 2005, issue of December 30, 2005.
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As this year runs quite unlamentably out, it is well to fill in some of its blanks — bits and pieces you may have missed.

Once every 10 years or so, there takes place something called a White House Conference on Aging. The fifth such was from December 11 to December 14 of this year. It is, however, somewhat difficult to understand just why this one was called a “White House Conference,” since it did not take place at the White House nor did President Bush attend any of its sessions, making him the first president to absent himself.

Perhaps he knew in advance that the delegates to the conference would pass a (non-binding) resolution calling for revoking the new Medicare prescription drug “benefit.” So instead of showing up for this once-in-a-decade national meeting, on December 13 the president joined the residents of Greenspring Village Retirement Community in Springfield, Va., for a “roundtable discussion” — more like a pep talk — on the Medicare Prescription Drug Benefit.

As it happens, I can speak with some authority on the issue of that benefit, confirming all the worst things you surely have read about it by now. Recently I tried, with help from a full-page “how to” article in The New York Times and with advice from my brother — a professor emeritus at Harvard whose field is the economics of medicine — to understand the details of the drug benefit. I should have stayed in bed; the program is fundamentally incomprehensible.

They say that a camel is a horse designed by a committee. Well, it would be reasonable to think that the prescription benefit’s failings derive from the cross-chamber compromises that so often color congressional legislation. But this law makes a camel look like a beauty queen; it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that it was designed precisely in order to prove that any government “intrusion” into the health care field was going to make health care more rather than less complex, less rather than more readily available.

My own dismal experience is not a digression. It helps explain why, when the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid asserted at the conference that the Medicare hotline was up and running without any hitches, he was booed by the delegates. As Robert Hudson, a professor at Boston University and a participant in the conference, reports: “The administration has [suggested] that making adult children help their parents figure out the confusing array of opinions is an opportunity for ‘intergenerational bonding.’ Delegates did not seem persuaded that discussing co-payments for Norvasc and Lisonopril over Thanksgiving turkey was an especially heartwarming family moment.”

On to other matters. In reporting the results of the American Jewish Committee’s periodic poll of the views and opinions of America’s Jews, the Israeli daily Ha’aretz chooses the headline “Most U.S. Jews Have Never Visited Israel.” True, but when you learn that 40% of America’s Jews have visited Israel, you scratch your head. Have 40% or more of America’s Jews visited some other country? I find the figure quite encouraging — confirmation that Israel continues to occupy an important place in our mental landscape.

The AJCommittee survey is also interesting on other counts. For example, it turns out that 70% of us oppose the war in Iraq, suggesting that the Reform movement got it quite right when, in its recent resolution calling for troop withdrawal, it referred to widespread Jewish opposition to the war. And a whoppingly small percentage of us — 16%, to be precise — call ourselves Republicans, while 59% are Democrats and 29% Independents.

With all that’s gone on this year, you may have missed the news about Abu Bakkar Qassim and A’Del Abdu al-Hakim, two Uighurs from western China. Uighurs, you ask? A Turkic-speaking Muslim minority in China.

These two were captured in Pakistan in 2001 and have been held in Guantanamo since then. Nine months ago, the government determined that they were not enemy combatants. On that basis, they quite reasonably asked to be released.

U.S. District Judge James Robertson, agreeing that “indefinite imprisonment at Guantanamo Bay is unlawful,” went on to opine that they must nonetheless be held, since no country is willing to take them in and releasing them into the United States itself would “have national security and diplomatic implications beyond the competence or the authority of this court.”

Men, then, quite literally without a country. Perhaps we need a Mistakenly Identified Enemy Combatant Protection Program?

And then there’s this to ponder: In 1977, journalist David Frost asked President Richard Nixon how he could justify the Huston Plan. The plan, you may recall, advocated the systematic use of wiretappings, burglaries, mail openings and infiltration against, among others, anti-war groups. At least some of these activities were known by those who concocted the plan to be illegal.

“Well,” Nixon said, “when the president does it that means it is not illegal.” Frost: “By definition?” Nixon: “Exactly. Exactly.”

On December 20 of this year, as one of a number of questions on the subject of presidentially ordered eavesdropping on domestic phone communications, the current commander in chief was asked how he could justify “the permanent expansion of the unchecked power of the executive.”

Bush: “There is the check of people being sworn to uphold the law…. There is oversight. We’re talking to Congress all the time… and we’ll continue to work with Congress as well as people within our own administration.” Whether the president’s actions are impeachable I cannot say; that they are a mockery of what the Founding Fathers intended by “checks and balances” is for sure.

Next week, I will be filing from Israel, where the forecast is for snow in Jerusalem the day I arrive. The world has, indeed, gone mad.

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