Afghanistan, Baseball, Churchill, Iraq, O'Connor, Politics, Veterans

Just the Beginning

332a64f4195b32b9555da335785b58d4It must have been about 1965 when my World War II veteran father had his gall bladder surgery.  As kid I wasn’t aware of many of the details, but I do remember that having the old man in the hospital for several days was a very big deal, particularly since we had to drive 100 miles or so round trip to visit him while he was recovering.

Gall bladder surgery in the 1960’s was a far different operation than it has become more recently and often resulted in several days in the hospital and then a good deal more rest at home.

We joked that Dad had the good sense not to show off his incision as Lyndon Johnson had done when he had the same surgery at about the same time. That classic LBJ moment still ranks as one of the most offbeat presidential photo ops.

Johnson, a Navy veteran of the war, had his surgery at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Washington. My Dad checked into the Veterans Administration hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota. We had no health insurance. If we needed to see a doctor we paid cash or, as when Mom had some major surgery, we pulled the family belt a little tighter and went on the payment plan. My parents spent years paying off Mom’s surgery and hospital bills, but the VA was free. The country owed it to Staff Sergeant R.E. Johnson and his grateful nation took care of his gall bladder. It may have been one of the few things my old man had in common with Lyndon Johnson.

The VA has been much in the news lately and the commendable retired Army Chief of Staff Eric Shinseki, who took the fall for the obvious shortcomings of the big, sprawling federal bureaucracy, will doubtless go down in history as the general fired for speaking truth to the Bush Administration about the cost and duration of a war of choice in Iraq and then ended up walking the plank due to the failures of his agency to properly take care of many of the veterans of that war. Numerous commentators have made the obvious observation that firing Shinseki will do about as much to right the wrongs of the VA as firing him before the Iraq war did to bring sanity to that misbegotten policy. His tombstone might well read “fall guy.”

Amid all the posturing by political people over the mess at the Phoenix VA hospital, and apparently other VA hospitals, should hover a palpable sense of “you should have known better.” It’s pretty clear that the more than $150 billion we spend annually on the Veterans Administration isn’t nearly enough money to do the right job for the men and women who served their country and now often need very expensive and long-term care.

Yet, when Congress had a chance earlier this year to provide more resources for an agency that is chronically short of resources, for example, primary care physicians who spend all day seeing patients the legislation died during a Senate filibuster. There was hardly a ripple of regret for letting our veterans down.“I don’t know how anyone who voted ‘no’ today can look a veteran in the eye and justify that vote,” said Daniel M. Dellinger, national commander of the American Legion. “Our veterans deserve more than what they got today.”

Next time you see a member of Congress ask them how they voted on that one. It’s a pretty good measure of who really is “supporting the troops.”

Now given a fresh “political scandal,” – and this was certainly true before Gen. Shinseki made his inevitable exit – everyone wants to get aboard the bash the VA bandwagon.

As the old story goes the most dangerous place in Washington, D.C. is the space between a soundbite spouting politician, in this case outraged by the VA’s mismanagement, and a waiting television camera. There has been a genuine stampede to present the VA’s problems as the most recent thing that comes near be “worse than Benghazi…”

But, as noted, this was all readily foreseen and, in fact, rather widely forecast as recently as when the Iraq fiasco was still unfolding. Nobel Prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz actually produced a study that predicted the long-term cost of the Iraq adventure would be $3 trillion – yes, “T” as in trillion dollars. Stilglitz was derided as a liberal alarmist whose analysis was wildly off the mark, but in 2010 he actually went back and re-ran the numbers and concluded that his huge number likely underestimated the true cost of the ten year war, in part, because he underestimated the health care costs of veterans that will only keep increasing for 30, 40 or 50 more years.

“About 25 percent of post-9/11 veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder,” according one recent report, “and 7 percent have traumatic brain injury, according to Congressional Budget Office analyses of VA data. The average cost to treat them is about four to six times greater than those without these injuries, CBO reported. And polytrauma patients cost an additional 10 times more than that.”

I remember this much about my Dad’s long ago medical care from the Veterans Administration: he had a gall bladder attack and in short order he was in the hospital for surgery. Maybe a few days at most passed from the attack to the cure and this was a VA dealing at the time with vets, like my Dad, who served during World War II. My favorite veteran died when he was 62 having never again set foot in a VA facility.

The young men and women who fought for us in Iraq and Afghanistan will likely live longer  – much longer we can hope – than the World War II generation, even with the many and varied traumatic injuries our soldiers bring home from the battlefield. We’re just starting to feel the impact of that sober reality on the VA and the rest of American society. This truly is just the beginning. Properly resourcing the VA and de-politicizing the process of fixing its shortcomings should be every bit as much a national priority as sending young people to war and keeping them there year-after-year.

“If there is any cause that should be bipartisan, it’s care for our veterans,” writes E.J. Dionne in the Washington Post. “But too often, what passes for bipartisanship is the cheap and easy stuff. It tells you how political this process has been so far that so many of the Democrats who joined Republicans in asking for Shinseki to go are in tough election races this fall.”

This much I know: the VA was there when my Dad needed the medical help that he would have been hard pressed to access and pay for any other way. It was literally a life saver. Now, having pounded our military with endless deployments in the open ended wars that are now apparently a fixture of America in the 21st Century, the bill for those shattered and scared is coming due. Brace yourselves. The cost is going to be far greater than anyone engaged in the current debate lets on and we have no choice but to dig deep and pay it.

Maybe Congress should fume and fuss as much about how our military is used as they do when the health care system, created by Congress by the way, falls short of serving all of our veterans.


2012 Election, Andrus, Baseball, FDR, Military History, Minnick, Politics

The GOP Field

The Weakest Field Since 1940?

John Weaver, an experienced GOP political operative and former top advisor to John McCain, says his party’s presidential field is “the weakest Republican field since Wendell Willkie won the nomination on the sixth ballot in 1940.”

Weaver is an student of political history and he may be right about the strength of the GOP field, but he is also advising former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, so a skeptic might accuse him of diminishing the entire field to make his “outsider” – an outsider not unlike Willkie – look more electable.

Willkie, a progressive – today he’d be an unnominatable Republican moderate – was an Elwood, Indiana native, a lawyer and a Wall Street utility executive. (Well, one out of three ain’t bad when you are trying to deny Franklin Roosevelt an unprecedented third term.) Willkie was the ultimate dark horse in 1940; not much of a candidate – he had once been a registered Democrat – but he was an impressive man. He had the misfortune of running in a year when the only real issues were the war in Europe and FDR’s try for a third term.

One keen observer of the 1940 election, Democratic National Chairman Edward J. Flynn, told Willkie’s biographer, Steve Neal, that “one of the main reasons for Willkie’s defeat was the lack of support given him by regular Republican organizations. The organizations certainly did not want him to be nominated…unquestionably they left the convention with no kindly spirit toward their candidate.”

Flynn, an old political pro, said Willkie made a classic mistake in 1940 – he ignored or rejected his base. “He took every opportunity the could,” Flynn said, “to insult directly or indirectly the politicians of the Republican party. That course of action never wins an election, and it can certainly help to lose one.”

Willkie was caught between an old-line Republican party in 1940 that wanted desperately to repundiate Roosevelt’s New Deal, but also had to deal with public anxiety about the worsening world situation. France collapsed under the Nazi onslaught during the summer of this long ago election year. Britain turned to Winston Churchill to try and avoid the same fate. The country adopted, with Willkie’s full support, the first peace time draft in its history even as Americans were torn between FDR’s policy of creeping intervention in the European war and a burning desire to simply stay out of another world war.

With opinion polls showing Willkie closing on Roosevelt, FDR uttered a few words on the last weekend of the campaign in Boston that would haunt the rest of his career: “I have said this before, but I shall say it again and again and again; your boys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars.” It was a coldly calculated statement on Roosevelt’s part designed to reassure skittish voters worried about war and it worked.

FDR won 55% of the vote and an Electoral College landslide of 449 to Willkie’s 82. Willkie won his home state of Indiana and just nine other mostly Midwest and western states.

As losing presidential candidates go, Wendell Willkie has been treated pretty well by history. Although he made sharply partisan attacks on Roosevelt during the campaign he was not a red meat candidate. He even later admitted that some of his attacks were launched against the incumbent because politics demanded such things and he enthusiastically embraced FDR’s foreign policy after the election.

The current restiveness among many Republicans about the strength of the GOP field may – big qualifier – may provide an opportunity for a completely fresh face in 2012, the kind of fresh face that Willkie presented in 1940. That said, the timing and nature of modern campaigns makes it seem nearly impossible that a candidate who has gotten organized and out of the gate within the next couple of months could possibly win enough early primaries to capture the nomination. Willkie won the nomination at the 1940 convention when delegates just couldn’t warm to the more conventional GOP canddiates, including Robert A. Taft, Thomas E. Dewey and Arthur Vandenberg.

Amazingly Willkie only switched his formal party affiliation from Democrat to Republican in January of 1940 and he still got the nomination. Not likely such a thing could happen today and a brokered convention any more is virtually out of the question.

Hardly a dark horse, but certainly a fresh face compared to Huckabee, Romney, Gingrich and company, former Gov. Huntsman has now made his own conversion. He quit working for the Obama Administration more than a year before the nominating convention. In the weakest field in 70 years, is he the fresh face of 2012?