Archive for August, 2012

The Crying Game

Standing in front of the offices of the Manchester Union-Leader newspaper in the falling snow of a cold late February afternoon in 1972,  Maine Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie cried and promptly sunk his candidacy for President of the United States. A United States Senator crying in public just seemed so, well unmanly. Muskie so the conventional wisdom held wasn’t tough enough for the toughest job in the world. It was widely reported at the time that Muskie had shed a tear while defending himself and his wife against the personal attacks that Union-Leader publisher William Loeb used for many years to influence the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. The venerable David Broder wrote in the Washington Post that Muskie had “tears streaming down his face,” but later acknowledge that the tears might just have been melting snow. In any event, a standard was adopted. Politicians, even when defending their spouses and attacking a cranky old neswspaper publisher, do not cry in public.

But that notion has become so 1972.

The underlying narrative of the just completed GOP Convention was the need to “humanize” Mitt Romney. The humanizing imperative was, according to the pundits, particularly important with the undecided voter and with women who,  one might conclude, just need a little emotion to really get into a candidate’s human side. A parade of character witnesses, including Ann Romney, folks whom Romney counseled as a church leader and politicians from Paul Ryan to Chris Christie worked hard to put a human sheen on the candidate’s stiff, buttoned-down persona. But everyone watching knew that the real humanizing moment(s) had to come from Romney himself. By most counts he choked up – modestly – twice during his speech. No reports of tears, however, which may have been the humanizing coup d’ grace for a guy known more for his spreadsheets than his soft side.

Wetting a cheek has now become as standard for a politician needing to show his or her real self. Hillary Clinton choked up in New Hampshire in 2008 and the teary moment helped the colder-than-her-husband candidate connect with “real” people who, presumably, cry all the time. House Speaker John Boehner is a world-class crier and not just of the quivering lip variety. When Boehner cries the waterworks come on full blast and there appears little he can do to control the impulse. The president cried when his grandmother died on the eve of the ’08 election; Bob Dole, the one-time GOP hatchet-man, has been know to shed a tear and Rick Santorum openly cried when talking on the campaign trail about his ailing daughter.

So, while some of us feel like crying when we hear certain politicians open their mouths, it is undeniable that there is now widespread crying in politics, if not in baseball. Thanks to Tom Hanks’ character in A League of Their Own, crying in the dugout is forever not going to be acceptable. But the no crying in politics rule has now completely been consigned  – sorry Ed Muskie – to the dust bin of history. 

Tom Lutz, who wrote a book about the social history of crying, true story, told the New York Times in 2010 that the current crop of criers is actually a return to our roots, er, our tear ducts.

“Men cried openly and often in the upper classes in the 18th century,” Lutz said. “Lincoln and Douglas both cried on the stump. And men cry more openly now than they did 50 years ago. Issues of ‘control’ are always in relation to these changing social norms. Bob Dole cried in public exactly twice before his 1996 campaign. But in the early 1990s, Bill Clinton had transformed the political meaning of crying; it tracked very well with women voters. All of a sudden Bob Dole couldn’t control his crying and did it often.”

Still, I have trouble envisioning Franklin Roosevelt crying during a speech. He usually had a smile on his face, while sticking it to the Republicans. Or, Dwight Eisenhower, a president who looks better and better as time goes on, couldn’t have been a crier. The image of Ike that endures is his earnest visit with the D-Day paratroopers before they set off to liberate Europe. Not much room for weepy emotion there. And I wonder about a double standard in the political crying game. Can a woman politician cry in public with impunity? Hillary managed the strategic cry when fighting for her political survival during the brutal primary with Obama, but if she teared up while discussing her current job would it be humanizing or foreign policy faux pas? I think I know.

Patrick Barkham wrote about the British political penchant for the tear a while back in The Guardian and offered a conclusion with which I think I agree. “The most profitable political tears are probably those shed when a politician is confronted with a tragedy that is not the demise of their own careers,” Barham wrote. Well said and very British stiff upper lip in its sensibility.

Tears shed over a tragedy are one thing, moist eyes in the interest of trying to humanize a candidate seems strangely, well, not quite human. After all, if you need to humanize a human being, well let’s don’t go there.

The tears, if that is what they were, that Ed Muskie shed in the New Hampshire snow 40 years ago are part of that remarkable man’s legacy. My how times change. Muskie didn’t get to the White House, but did serve as Secretary of State. And here’s betting that his predecessors in that job, think John Foster Dulles or Dean Acheson, never cried. Today, considering how far tears have come, Muskie’s wet cheeks might be considered just a really effective, humanizing moment in his stump speech.

I may be in danger of crossing over to cynicism about all this crying, but I’m pretty sure John Boehner’s tears well up from some genuine place. I have a hunch some others who are weeping on the stump have come to see the carefully calibrated tear as just another gesture in the speech arsenal. I’m waiting for the headline: “Candidate X accused of faking his tears.” At that moment the tactical tear will have really become part of the political mainstream.

 

When Conventions Mattered

William Gibbs McAdoo – that’s him in profile – is mostly forgotten to history today, but back in the day when delegates to national political conventions actually made decisions about the candidates for president and vice president, McAdoo was a political kingmaker.

By 1932 McAdoo had assembled a remarkable political resume. He married well – Woodrow Wilson’s daughter – and served as his father-in-law’s Treasury Secretary. He was also chairman of the then brand new Federal Reserve Board, managed the national rail system during World War I and was twice a serious candidate for president. In 1924 McAdoo came within an eyelash of winning the Democratic nomination before losing out when the convention turned to a compromise candidate after struggling through 103 – you read it right – 103 contentious ballots. That still qualifies as the longest convention in American political history. One wag quipped that New York had invited the Democratic delegates to visit The Big Apple, not to move there permanently. The convention lasted 17 long, long days.

McAdoo was mounting a political return in 1932 just in time to put him in position to be a kingmaker.  McAdoo was both a candidate for the U.S. Senate from California and the political leader of the large California delegation to that year’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In a word – McAdoo had influence and he used it.

The convention that eventually nominated Franklin D. Roosevelt was the last Democratic convention that required a two-thirds vote to nominate a standard bearer. That 103 ballot marathon in 1924 became a disaster for the party, but southern Democrats insisted on retaining the super majority requirement in order to maintain an out-sized role in the national party. As a general rule, if southern Democrats stayed together on a candidate they could usually name the man who would lead the ticket, or at least influence the shape of the national campaign.

William McAdoo knew all this in detail. He was born in Georgia and enjoyed substantial support among southern politicians, in part, because of two issues – booze and race. McAdoo was a dry – he favored prohibition – and his not so skillful navigation of the explosive issue of the Ku Klux Klan - he refused to condemn the Klan out of fear of losing southern support – was a major factor in his losing the 1924 nomination.

FDR, then the governor of New York, entered his party’s 1932 convention as the favorite for the nomination, but he hardly had the necessary votes locked up. His advisers actually contemplated an attempt to change the convention rules to require only a simple majority to nominate a candidate, but when word leaked out of what was being considered and howls of protest ensued, Roosevelt ordered his managers to back off. He would have to find the votes of two-thirds of the delegates to win.

Consider for a moment what the political drama must have been like in Chicago in late June 1932 and contrast that drama – and all its consequences – with the tepid, heavily stage managed GOP convention that groans on in Tampa this week and the similar Democratic event that will take place in Charlotte all too soon. The nation was gripped by a Great Depression in 1932, President Herbert Hoover was growing more unpopular by the day and the Democratic nomination seemed to virtually ensure the election of the man who would be lucky enough to claim it.

On the first ballot in Chicago nine different candidates received votes. Roosevelt led the pack and tallied 666 votes, a number far short of what he needed to secure the nomination. Facing a toough fight, FDR was able to add only 11 more votes on the second ballot, while a variety of favorite sons and two more serious candidates – Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas and former Democratic presidential candidate and New York Gov. Al Smith – divided up more than 400 other votes.

On the third ballot Roosevelt polled just five additional votes and his managers were profoundly concerned that his momentum toward the nomination had stalled. If his vote totals began to actually decline on additional ballots, they worried, the convention might be stampeded to another candidate. Smith, for example, once FDR’s mentor, was determined not to give up the fight believing that he was entitled to one more run at the White House. Smith’s vote totals – he got 201 votes on the first ballot – remained rock solid through the third ballot and he must have felt that if he could hang on long enough the convention would turn to him again as it had done in 1928.

However it was Garner, a conservative southerner, who became the key to FDR’s nomination. Garner had the support, not surprisingly, of his own Texas delegation, but also enjoyed the support of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst and William Gibbs McAdoo. It’s not clear that a smoke-filled room or bourbon was involved – Garner was a habitual cigar smoker and enjoyed a drink – but a deal was done and McAdoo helped broker the agreement. On the fourth ballot, it was agreed, the California and Texas delegations would switch support to Roosevelt and the stampede would be on for other delegates to join the bandwagon. Garner didn’t exactly hanker after the number two spot on the ticket, but as a loyal party man he agreed to accept the vice presidential nomination. Does anyone ever really turn down the vice presidency?

FDR secured the Democratic nomination on the fourth ballot – Al Smith still polled nearly 200 votes – and for the first time in history the nominee traveled by airplane to Chicago to accept the prize in person. The rest is history. Roosevelt went on to win a smashing election victory in November against Hoover.

William Gibbs McAdoo won his own election victory in November and served a single term in the U.S. Senate. His real legacy might be that he knew just when to cut a political deal; a deal that helped change history at a time when party conventions really mattered. McAdoo died in 1941 and is buried in Arlington National Cemetary. His tombstone notes his service as Treasury Secretary and in the Senate. It could honestly also call him a presidential kingmaker.

 

The Death of Facts

The Los Angeles Times noted it in a headline today – “Rick Santorum repeats inaccurate welfare attack on Obama.” Santorum repeated the charge – Obama is eliminating the work requirement of welfare reform – that fact checkers have repeatedly characterized as so far from the truth that it qualifies as “pants on fire” untrue.

FOX News contributor Juan Williams, hardly an apologist for national Democrats, noted in a opinion column in The Hill today that the flat out misrepresentation of the president’s “you didn’t build that” line dominated the first night of the Republican convention in Tampa. ”For weeks,” Williams writes, “Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan have hammered President Obama for saying, ‘You didn’t build that.” And Obama did say those precise words during a speech on July 13 in Virginia arguing that people earning more than $250,000 should pay more taxes, but the attacks are completely out of context. Williams repeats the entire quote.

“If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business — you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.”

This isn’t just distortion, Williams argues, but old fashioned dirty politics, but at the heart of such tactics is a stunning disregard for facts, real truths.

Republicans hardly have a lock on this kind of sleazy use of a few words out of context or, in the case of the welfare attack, just making things up. Democrats, like Sen. Harry Reid, make wild allegations, too. Reid received widespread criticism for saying he had a source that confirmed that GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney didn’t pay any taxes for a decade. Wild, unproven, even unprovable, the Reid charge fits, like so many attacks, in the dirty politics category of “let ‘em deny it.”

All this adds up to the death of facts and the wake for the dearly departed is observed every day in print, on the airwaves and everywhere politics gets “reported” these days.

The current campaign often seems to be a “fact free zone” where dealing with the substance of real issues gets lost in the fog of a word or two taken out of context. Little wonder that most decent, striving Americans have trouble separating the facts from the chaff. Little wonder, as well, that such small minded campaigns based on half-truths or whole lies leave even the eventual winner so downsized that they have trouble discussing, let alone leading and governing, with real facts.

Politics has always been about defining the other guy before he defines you, but the pace and intensity of today’s campaigns mean that the entire purpose of a campaign now is to catch a whiff of defining language in the opponent’s speech and hammer it with a sledge. Facts are dead.

In fact, earlier this year Rex Huppke, a Chicago Tribune reporter, formally declared the death of facts and wrote the obituary. “To the shock of most sentient beings,” Huppke wrote, “Facts died Wednesday, April 18, after a long battle for relevancy with the 24-hour news cycle, blogs and the Internet. Though few expected Facts to pull out of its years-long downward spiral, the official cause of death was from injuries suffered last week when Florida Republican Rep. Allen West steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.

“Facts held on for several days after that assault — brought on without a scrap of evidence or reason — before expiring peacefully at its home in a high school physics book. Facts was 2,372.” Funny. Painfully funny.

Huppke dated Facts to ancient Greece where the idea originated that there are “universal principles that everybody agrees on.” Facts grew through the years where science and empirical observation underscored what is true. Things became tough, however, as Facts struggled to “persevere through the last two decades, despite historic setbacks that included President Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, the justification for President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq and the debate over President Barack Obama’s American citizenship.”

Opinion, its been noted, became the new fact, supplemented with footnotes by misrepresentation and distortion. Case in point: a new “documentary,” written and narrated by conservative scholar Dinesh D’Souza, that alleges that Barack Obama’s real agenda in the White House is to atone for the sins of colonialism – colonialism?  This secret Obama agenda is allegedly influenced by the president’s long-dead father. But, it’s all just opinion disguised as truth.

As the Associated Press noted, “The assertion that Obama’s presidency is an expression of his father’s political beliefs, which D’Souza first made in 2010 in his book “The Roots of Obama’s Rage,” is almost entirely subjective and a logical stretch at best.” D’Sousa’s film grossed more than $6 million last weekend. So much for the box office appeal of facts. So much for “scholarship.”

D’Sousa’s film, of course, has as much to do with a real documentary as Michael Moore’s leftwing films. Facts don’t matter. It is  opinion, confidently expressed, that rules.

The death of facts is everywhere. Climate change: pick your “facts” to support whatever you want to believe. Obama a socialist: pick your facts and, by the way, don’t bother to actually investigate what socialism is or tries to be. From Lance Armstrong to much of the swish and spin from the left on MSNBC, from El Rushbo to the Syrian president, facts don’t matter.

“American society has lost confidence that there’s a single alternative,” Mary Poovey, a professor of English at New York University and author of “A History of the Modern Fact” told the Tribune’s Huppke for his Facts obit. “Anybody can express an opinion on a blog or any other outlet and there’s no system of verification or double-checking, you just say whatever you want to and it gets magnified. It’s just kind of a bizarre world in which one person’s opinion counts as much as anybody else’s.”

Yup. As Huppke noted,”Facts is survived by two brothers, Rumor and Innuendo, and a sister, Emphatic Assertion.” It is my considered opinion that we should mourn his demise.

 

 

Nary a Word

Former Republican Sen. Alan Simpson has one message in his post-Senate life as a truth teller about the nation’s fiscal health. Simpson is preaching the gospel of budget and tax reform to anyone who will listen. Unfortunately the candidates for President of the United States, the men who will have to deal with the great unspoken issue of this election, the looming fiscal crisis, cannot seem to summon the political courage to level with the voters and talk as candidly as Al Simpson does about the stark choices facing the next president and the next Congress.

We’re left with Al Simpson and thank God we have him.

Simpson, as funny as he is pithy, complained in 2011 interview about the younger generation. “Grandchildren now don’t write a thank you for the Christmas presents,” he said. “They are walking on their pants with their cap on backward, listening to the Enema Man and Snoopy, Snoopy Poop Dog.” Funny stuff, but even more importantly, Simpson is speaking truth about the fiscal mess in America and the lack of political will to take it on.

“You can’t cut spending your way out of this hole,” Simpson, who was appointed as co-chair of President Obama’s Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform in 2010, said. “You can’t grow your way out of this hole, and you can’t tax your way out of this hole. So put that in your pipe and smoke it, we tell these people. This is madness.”

The famously outspoken Simpson knows what needs to be done to get the nation’s fiscal house in order – everything. Raise taxes and reform the tax code, address entitlements, including Medicare and Social Security, cut defense spending and much else in the federal budget. The debt, fiscal, tax and budget problems are so profound and the medicine to fix the problems so Castor oil-like that only old fashioned political compromise – bipartisan compromise – can make it go down with the American public. Democrats will have to come to the party ready to get serious about Medicare and their pet programs. Republicans have to put on the shelf their time-tested mantra of tax cuts as the solution for every economic problem and address a defense budget bloated by two wars and the world-wide deployment of Americans on a scale that rivals the one-time British Empire. Everyone has to give – and soon.

As I have written in this space in the past, President Obama had his statesmanship moment on fiscal and budget policy some time back and he chose to punt. The politics of embracing the recommendations laid out by Simpson and his fiscal commission co-chair Erskine Bowles must have seemed too risky. Obama’s decision was both shortsighted and ultimately politically inept. Had he embraced the recommendations and spent the last few months campaigning on that basis he would have both a forward-looking message about the economy and, should he win re-election, a real mandate to do something with the debt and taxes. Instead we are left with a virtually insignificant fight between Obama’s plan to raise taxes on the  wealthiest Americans and Mitt Romney’s plan to further cut taxes in the face of mounting budget deficits. Romney says he would also cut federal spending, but beyond virtually insignificant cuts to tiny, ideologically-driven items like the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) and the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities, he won’t get specific. (By the way, the combined budgets of CPB and the endowments would hardly cover a few hours of interest on the national debt.) Romney’s lack of specifics shows, as does the president’s fiscal posture, both a lack of policy seriousness and political courage.

Here is what’s at stake post-November. Because of the failure earlier this year by Congress, which deserves most of the blame, and the president to reach any kind of an accommodation on spending cuts and revenue increases automatic budget cuts will go into effect at the end of the year and Bush-era tax cuts, already extended by Obama, will expire. The country will be over the fiscal cliff you’ve been hearing about. The nation’s credit rating will be further downgraded and the economy will head back toward recession. I’m betting most Americans, be they Tea Partiers or far left progressives, don’t understand the extent of the mess that the next president will face. How could they when the two men contending to lead the country say nary a word about the problem.

So, to be clear, the year end problem will be, and this is no exaggeration, a fiscal crisis on par with the economic melt down in 2008. Fasten your seat belts.

It all could have been avoided – and still could – had a few key political players been more concerned about the future their kids will inherit than the outcome of the next election. Instead of a real debate about the nation’s fiscal future, Romney has relied on demonstrably false claims about Obama destroying the work requirement for Americans on public assistance. Rather than build understanding among confused Americans and create a mandate to govern in his second term, Obama has run a campaign of small ideas and puny aspirations. Neither man seems to have the courage of any convictions about what really has to be done, which brings us back to Al Simpson.

It would be easy to say that the lanky Cody, Wyoming lawyer, out of public office after three terms in the Senate, is a man liberated by not needing to worry about saying unpopular, but true things. But that’s not Simpson. He’s always been willing to shake things up with his candor, which made him the perfect man to join former Clinton Administration Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles as a co-chair of the National Fiscal Commission popularly called Simpson-Bowles. Still, it has taken real political courage for both men – and Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, who served on the Commission – to call for real sacrifice and real bipartisan agreement about reform. (GOP vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan also served on the Simpson-Bowles Commission and, unlike Crapo, did not back the proposals the Commission developed. Still, Simpson said recently that Ryan knows his stuff and was a serious player on the Commission.)

No serious person in Washington, D.C. would tell you that the nation faces anything but huge and painful choices post-election, but the candidates essentially are ignoring the biggest issue of the year because they have made the political calculation that talking seriously about it is a political loser.

On September 18 in Boise, Al Simpson will receive a new award for political leadership created by The Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. The award has been created to recognize genuine accomplishment and a commitment to bipartisanship. Simpson deserves that kind of recognition. It’s a shame the two men running for president can’t summon up the same courage and commitment. One of them will have to find some political guts in mid-November. The fiscal cliff the current crowd in Washington created is looming.

 

A Very Big Tent

Embattled Missouri Congressman Todd Akin and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice have both made lots of news over the last couple of days. Akin for his words suggesting that there is something called “legitimate” rape and Rice for the new green jacket she will soon wear as one of first two women admitted to Augusta National Golf Club in Georgia, home of the most prestigious tournament in golf.

The two events and individuals would seem to have very little in common unless you consider that the very conservative Congressman and the not-so-conservative first African-American woman to serve as Secretary of State represent the far extremes of the modern Republican Party.

While national Republicans have been working furiously to get Akin to quit the Missouri Senate race where, until last weekend, any Republican was considered the prohibitive favorite over Democratic incumbent Claire McCaskill, Rice has been quietly taking bows – or is it practice swings – for having broken another barrier.

As of this writing Akin says he’s in the Missouri race to stay and in the process re-opening the line of attack the national GOP fears perhaps even more than Medicare – the GENDER GAP.

As Akin’s views on violence against women get aired over and over during the next few days this story will give legs to a real debate about the Republican platform plank on abortion, which has long been dictated by the most anti-abortion faction in the party. Akin’s position, if I understand it, that essentially here are no appropriate exemptions permitting abortion, including rape, incest and the life of the mother, will be measured against what the GOP ticket will say about its likely, and as we speak, evolving position. This is dangerous territory for a party and a ticket with an already 15% gender chasm.

Invoking the rule that there are no coincidences in politics, it should be noted that three weeks ago, as Mitt Romney vetted and decided on a vice presidential running mate, the story surfaced – fanned by the always helpful Matt Drudge – that Condi Rice was very much in the running, in fact the front runner, for the second spot on the ticket. Even Sarah Palin found a Rice vice presidency appealing. Of course, Rice never was in the running because her pro choice position on abortion would have sparked the greatest turmoil on the GOP convention floor since Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford contemplated a “co-presidency” in 1980.

Again, no coincidence, Rice was subsequently named one of the GOP convention speakers just days before the old boys as Augusta National decided to publicly say it was time to measure her for a green jacket.

Some sports writers – most of them never as cynical as political reporters – couldn’t help but comment on the curious timing of the Augusta National announcement about the membership for Rice and South Carolina banker Darla Moore. Why now, they asked? Was the announcement timed to head off more feminist protests well in advance of next year’s Masters? Or was something else at play among the magnolias?

After a decade of saying not only NO, but heck NO, the mysterious process of accepting new members at Augusta found the golf club’s chairman choosing a Monday morning – a time sure to guarantee maximum news coverage – and in the same news cycle with Todd Akin to make his historic announcement.

Give the old boys some credit for good timing. In one fell swoop they allowed Condi Rice to  be the first at yet something else and gave national prominence to Darla Moore, a self proclaimed political independent and very savvy business executive – Martha Stewart, someone who would know, has called her “a cutthroat killer” – who has feuded openly with South Carolina governor and Tea Party darling Nikki Haley.

A growing and successful national party would try and find a way to appeal to women like those who now have keys to Augusta. The appeal, it’s pretty clear, will not be on a road traveled by the Todd Akins of the party.

As the Wall Street Journal’s Jason Gay wrote of the decision to finally allow two women into the most sacred shrine of golf in the United States: “They did the right thing, even if it took so long, Earth is rolling its eyes. Golf is slow and weird. But progress is progress.”

If the hide bound southern aristocrats who run the course that Bobby Jones built can change there surely must be hope for our politics. Here’s a bet that by this time next week – in advance of the GOP convention – Todd Akin will be but a footnote in Missouri political history. He will find it impossible, thanks to his ignorant views about women, to survive even in a party when many share his fundamental views about abortion.

It won’t be pretty, but progress is progress.

One guy missing from Tampa next week will be the last GOP president – George W. Bush. Say what you will about “W”, he found a way over eight years to keep the dysfunctional Republican family – the Akins and the Rices – under the same roof. Mitt Romney may not be so lucky, or so skillful.

 

Sorry, Wrong Number…Many, Many Times

My Dad used to smile when telling his story about the young fellow who had just seen the classic 1962 World War II movie – The Longest Day – about the D-Day invasion of France in 1944 and was, in turn, telling his own father about the film.

The old man listens patiently and then off-handedly tells his son, “I haven’t seen the movie, but I was there for the play.”

In the same spirit as that old story, I have not seen the 1948 Barbara Stanwyck/Burt Lancaster movie – Sorry, Wrong Number – but I have definitely been living the play. My play is called: Trying to Reach Health and Welfare? Sorry, Wrong Number.

There is nothing special or particularly unique about my telephone number except that the first seven digits of my number match the first seven digits of a toll-free, helpline number – Medicaid Automated Customer Service – managed by the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. I know this rather obscure fact because I have been averaging two or three “Health and Welfare calls” every weekday for the last two years or so. I long ago lost track of the number of calls, but it beyond hundreds and into the thousands. Thankfully, callers with questions about their Medicaid benefits must assume no state employee works on the weekend, so my phone tends to get the weekend off, as well.

Months ago I thought I had identified the answer to all these wayward calls, but alas it was a fix without a cure. On the state government website that promotes the toll-free number the “1″ before the toll-free number had been, inexplicably, left off the rest of the number. So an unsuspecting caller, say from Weiser or Bonners Ferry – I’ve had calls from every corner of the big state of Idaho – would just dial the number shown (minus the “1″) and get me. I called a helpful state agent and asked if maybe, just maybe they could add the “1″ and solve the problem of the call from Mrs. Jones from Caldwell, she needs to talk about her niece’s Medicaid needs, ending up on my voice mail. Problem solved, right? Not so fast. The wrong numbers declined a bit, but did not end. I have to assume regular callers to the toll-free number have made a note of the non-”1″ toll-free number and were still calling, blissfully unaware that some public affairs consultant and part-time blogger was fielding their calls. The voice mail messages on my phone seemed to continue unabated.

So, believing that information is power, I changed the greeting on my phone. No longer was it, “You have reached me and I can’t take your call right now…” My message became much more Medicaid-centric: “If you are trying to reach the Department of Health and Welfare, you haven’t…hang up and dial a “1″ before you call this number.” That’ll fix it, I happily proclaimed, as I began answering questions from people who were really trying to reach me and wondering why I had a Health and Welfare related message on my phone. You can inform some of the people some of the time, but…the calls continue.

I have genuine sympathy for my callers. They need answers to real questions. Judging by some of the hundreds of messages that have been left on my voice mail, many of the callers are confused and uncertain about benefits and responsibilities. If you have ever tried dialing into a government agency you know what an intimidating experience it can be. Imagine getting the wrong number and ending up in some civilian’s voice mail, while you worry and wait for a call back. It would be easy to conclude that government just doesn’t work.

My standard procedure now is to try and intercept as many of these calls as I can and re-direct them to a number that begins with that essential “1,” but it is not always possible. And, while I admit that I’ve been annoyed and frustrated by the calls that I get, wasted effort that doesn’t do the callers any good, the “sorry, wrong number” play I’ve been living has given me an entirely new appreciation of what one little glitch in a vast government program can do to create problems and frustrate users.

As Idaho contemplates a major expansion of Medicaid services under the Affordable Care Act – one estimate holds that 100,000 more Idahoans could be covered – and the state’s for profit Medicaid contractor continues to try to make the system work, here’s hoping, and not just for my sake, that they attend to all the details, small and large, involved in an expansion.

And, just for the record, I have equal amounts of sympathy for the state workers who, without much fanfare or appreciation, labor to make an essential program of our society work for people who really need the help. This is a vastly complicated government program, wrapped in layers of regulation and requiring immense levels of accountability. One little digit – that pesky “1″ – can frustrate even the most essential government program.

And, yes, I could get a new phone number, but have ruled that out. If Barbara Stanwyck and Burt Lancaster can handle a wayward call, so can I. But, for future reference, do remember that “1″ in front of a toll-free number. Given the vast proliferation of telephones these days, it is a given that someone has the number that is toll-free with a “1″ and just some schmuck’s voice mail without.