In one of those awful collisions between public policy and real life, I was in the midst of an awkward conversation about end-of-life issues with my father when Sarah Palin raised the remarkable idea that the Obama Administration’s attempt to include such issues in its health-care-reform proposal would lead to “death panels.” Let me tell you something about my family situation, a common one these days, in order to illuminate the obscenity of Palin’s formulation and the cowardice of those, like Senator Charles Grassley of Iowa, the lead Republican negotiator on the Senate Finance Committee, who have refused to contest her claim.
Both my parents are 89 years old. They have been inseparable, with the exception of my father’s service in World War II, since kindergarten. My mother has lost her sight and is quite frail. My father takes care of her and my aunt Rose, lovingly, with some — but not enough — private help at their home in central Pennsylvania. One night in early August, I had a terrible scare. I called home and Aunt Rose was freaking out; she didn’t know where my father was. All the worst possibilities crossed my mind — it turned out he was just getting the mail — as well as a very difficult reality: if he’d had a stroke, I would have had no idea about what he’d want me to do. I had lunch with him the next day to discuss this.
It wasn’t easy. My dad is very proud and independent. He didn’t really want to talk about what came next. He was pretty sure, but not certain, that he’d signed a living will. He was very reluctant to sign an enduring power of attorney to empower me, or my brother, to make decisions about his care and my mom’s if he were incapacitated. I tried to convince him that it was important to make some plans, but I didn’t have the strategic experience that a professional would have — and, in his eyes, I didn’t have the standing. I may be a grandfather myself, but I’m still just a kid in my dad’s mind. Clearly, an independent, professional authority figure was needed. And this is what the “death panels” are all about: making end-of-life counseling free and available through Medicare. (I’d make it mandatory, based on recent experience, but hey, I’m not entirely clearheaded on the subject right now.)
Given the heinous dust that’s been raised, it seems likely that end-of-life counseling will be dropped from the health-reform legislation. But that’s a small point, compared with the larger issue that has clouded this summer: How can you sustain a democracy if one of the two major political parties has been overrun by nihilists? And another question: How can you maintain the illusion of journalistic impartiality when one of the political parties has jumped the shark?
I’m not going to try. I’ve written countless “Democrats in Disarray” stories over the years and been critical of the left on numerous issues in the past. This year, the liberal insistence on a marginally relevant public option has been a tactical mistake that has enabled the right’s “government takeover” disinformation jihad. There have been times when Democrats have run demagogic scare campaigns on issues like Social Security and Medicare. There are more than a few Democrats who believe, in practice, that government should be run for the benefit of government employees’ unions. There are Democrats who are so solicitous of civil liberties that they would undermine legitimate covert intelligence collection. There are others who mistrust the use of military power under almost any circumstances. But these are policy differences, matters of substance. The most liberal members of the Democratic caucus — Senator Russ Feingold in the Senate, Representative Dennis Kucinich in the House, to name two — are honorable public servants who make their arguments based on facts. They don’t retail outright lies. Hyperbole and distortion certainly exist on the left, but they are a minor chord in the Democratic Party.