Too scared to know what's good for us

It had been so long since our federal government acted on a grand and historic scale to enhance the fairness and accessibility of humanitarian services that people, confronted with something they couldn't recognize, freaked out.

We have Americans born since 1964, nearly a half-century ago, who thought the federal government did nothing but cut taxes, run up deficits, argue pointlessly on cable television, practice corruption and wage distant wars for nebulous purposes that nobody got drafted into and that everyone could watch comfortably on television.

From the Civil Rights Act, Voting Rights Act and Great Society of LBJ's time until a mere week ago, when Congress mandated that people get health insurance and banned unfair denial of it while subsidizing low- and middle-income people, our federal government had done nothing remotely of that type.

The Republican presidents during that time either resigned in disgrace or pardoned predecessors who'd resigned in disgrace or cut taxes disproportionately for rich people or started wars of uncertain purpose or on false pretenses over in the Middle East.

The nearest thing to a big federal government program during that time was George W. Bush's Medicare prescription drug benefit. But that was carefully run through the private sector, and government was specifically barred from negotiating drug prices on behalf of the people against the corporations. It also left a giant "donut hole" in coverage.

Still, it scared everyone half to death until it turned out to work moderately well.

We only had two Democratic presidents in that time, the first of whom, Jimmy Carter, was an abject failure.

The second, Bill Clinton, declared at his toe-sucking Republican consultant's behest that the era of big government was over. He did little more than:

--Reduce the deficit in a Wall Street-obliging way that had him comparing himself in exasperation to the Republican Dwight Eisenhower.

--Undo some of the welfare reforms dating to Johnson's Great Society.

--Throw in with the Republicans on freer trade that defied the pleas otherwise of organized labor.

Clinton delegated health care reform to his wife, who blew it.

So it came to be last Sunday night that two throwback big-government Democrats -- a center-left president named Barack Obama and a left-left House speaker named Nancy Pelosi -- rammed through this health care reform.

All heck broke loose.

Conservative states started talking about defying this new federal law. One conservative congressional candidate in western Arkansas called for civil disobedience. People took to the streets in Little Rock to scream "freedom" at the top of their lungs -- being fully free to do so, of course -- and carry signs decrying "socialism" and "Marxism."

John Boehner, the ever-tanned Republican leader of the House, bellowed that a Democratic colleague supporting the bill was a "dead man" for doing so.

A brother of a Democratic congressman had the gas line to his house cut after a Tea Partier put the address online in mistaken belief that it was the congressman's address. A brick went through a Democratic headquarters window in Ohio.

Democratic members of Congress had their lives threatened by phone and fax and had the safety of their families called into question, which led to the involvement of the socialist police, by which I mean, of course, the FBI.

The only apparent antidote for all this is for everyone to realize over time that this law is not doom.

Oh, and maybe we could engage in compassionate activist government more than once every 50 years, so that people wouldn't be so afraid of it when they saw it.

Immigration reform, energy policy reform, financial-sector reform -- maybe we put those through, just to take people's minds off the sinister evils of a country ensuring health insurance for its people.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@