I recently heard Bill Moyers interviewing Susan Jacoby (FREETHINKERS: A HISTORY OF AMERICAN SECULARISM in 2004, THE AGE OF AMERICAN UNREASON) on his show. She discussed many things with him but among them was the irrational beliefs of Americans and our short attention span. She talked about why we didn't get the health care problem fixed eleven years ago and why we aren't going to get it fixed today.
BILL MOYERS: How is this flight from reason, as you describe it, affecting-- playing out in our current political race?
SUSAN JACOBY: In an age of unreason you tend to get focus on very small personal facts as opposed to big issues. But even more than that, lack of knowledge and unreason affects the way candidates speak about everything.
I mean, for example, obviously the healthcare situation in this country is very important. All of the candidates say it is. But if people don't know, for example, how is healthcare handled in other countries? How many people, for instance, do have the right to choose their own doctors in this country? In other words, without a base of knowledge of how things are you can't really have a reasonable talk about how things ought to be. In other words, you can say, "Oh, we don't want a program which will prevent people from choosing their own doctors." Well, are we able to choose our own doctors? I'm not. I have to choose within a managed care network.
SUSAN JACOBY: Because the President's only the Commander in Chief of the Armed Force. He's not the commander in chief of us. And it's a word that presidents didn't use except in a strictly military sense in the past. What's far more important than being commander in chief is being educator in chief. And Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln would not have succeeded as commanders in chief if they hadn't first succeeded as teachers in chief.
To be non-partisan about it, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush are two of the biggest failures as teachers in chief of any presidents we've ever had. Bush at foreign policy obviously. It's great to bring people along with you when everybody's in favor of the war as they were in 2003 'cause there was this desire to strike back at somebody, anyone, for 9/11. So Bush just said, "Oh, yeah. Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11." And people believed it. But--
BILL MOYERS: And Clinton? What about Clinton?
SUSAN JACOBY: Everything in my view that's being written about the failure of the Clinton healthcare program in relation to Hillary Clinton's candidacy is wrong. Yes, it's true. It's that failure is usually attributed to their failure to bring the insurance industry groups to the table, all of the interest groups in advance.
No. The reason that healthcare reform was dead on arrival was that the American people hadn't been educated and prepared for any kind of change. Bill Clinton just announced his plan which had been developed kind of secretly, without much public participation. The health insurance industry jumped in with its Harry and Louise commercials. Now I'll bet everybody who is listening to this tonight remembers Harry and Louise. And nobody remembers a detail of the Clinton plan, the healthcare plan. It is the job of the president to get his message out before Harry and Louise. Bill Clinton didn't do that.
BILL MOYERS: But I can't imagine a politician succeeded by saying, "We're an ignorant culture and an ignorant people."
SUSAN JACOBY: No. But I can imagine a politician succeeding by saying, "We as a people have not lived up to our obligation to learn what we ought to learn to make informed decisions." I can imagine candidates saying, "And we in the Congress have been guilty of that too." Because it's not just the public that's ignorant. We get the government we deserve.
In other words, you wouldn't say to people, "You're a dope." You would say, "We have got to do better in-- about learning the things we need to know to make sound public policy." We can't learn the things we need to know from five-second sound bite commercials. We can't learn the things that we need to know from a quick hit on the Internet to see the latest person making a fool of themself on YouTube. We can only learn the things we need to know from talking to each other, from books. And we all need to do a lot more of that.
You know, what I don't see on the campaign trail-- if universal healthcare were one of my priorities as a candidate, first thing I'd be doing, I'd be having sessions all over the country with three groups of people, nurses, doctors, and patients. You don't need to know what the insurance industry thinks. Because you know what they think. They're going to oppose anything that they think will place any limits on medical spending and their ability to charge you higher health insurance premiums. But I'd be sitting down in unscripted sessions with people so that when-- if I was elected I could take that knowledge with me into the White House. So I could get my message across before Harry and Louise. That's what being an educator means.
And I think a candidate could say that to people. Not, "You're dopes." But, "We all need to know a lot more than we know." We've become satisfied with too little. We've become satisfied with the lowest common denominator. It is not good enough when 23 percent of our young people who have had some college, only 23 percent of them can find these countries on a map. We all need to be able to learn how to find these countries on a map.
Once again thank you Bill. This is why PBS just couldn't fire you! You just keep getting it right.