They’re telling us what we think

Wendell Potter, the former health insurance executive turned critic, was telling me last week that the industry was not inherently evil, but merely insulated in a fatally flawed culture that emphasizes serving investors over helping sick people.

What’s evil, he said, is the way the industry spends from its obscenely deep pockets to drive public opinion through cynical and dishonest media advertising that exploits superficial fear.

Potter’s former colleagues use their lavishly paid political and media masterminds to define health care reform by simplistic and incendiary jargon — as “government takeover” and “slippery slope to socialism” and “rationed care for sick old people.”

Never mind that we already have a government takeover of much of our health care, including the most effective parts. Never mind that the most socialistic thing to happen lately was the Bush administration’s bailout of the very Wall Street that rations care already. Never mind that no one is intending to reduce Medicare benefits, but only to tell the private insurers who have been taking entirely too much government money to subsidize their woefully inefficient Medicare Advantage programs that the gravy train must stop.

So it came to be that, a few hours after I visited with Potter, my home land-line telephone rang and the ID bar related only that this was a toll-free caller. Knowing better, I answered.

A woman commenced talking to me, by recording, I thought, to tell me that U.S. Sen. Harry Reid’s health reform bill would explode the deficit, raise taxes and erode the quality of health care.

But apparently the woman speaking was live. All of a sudden, after having just explained the supposed horror of Reid’s bill, she asked me if I agreed with what she’d just said that Reid’s bill was not what the country needed.

First I laughed. Then, I admit, I swore. Then I sought to find out what in the wide world this was all about.

Was she presuming to pass this off as a legitimate public opinion poll, one by which she’d push the respondent toward the answer she wanted? Was this done so that she could produce an overwhelming finding against Reid’s bill to be used to fortify the vital swing vote against the bill as written by our state’s swing Democratic vote in the Senate, that of the ever-embattled Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas?

The woman said that she was merely seeking an opinion and got off the phone. She was but a hired canvasser. My questions were better put to the creeps who had hired the creeps who had hired her. But you can’t get to them, of course. They’re in their insulated offices awaiting their designed findings to serve their selfish motives.

I wait now for some poll to be released showing that the people of Arkansas are three-fourths against Harry Reid’s bill, this the result of these people having been told they needed to be against it seconds before they were asked if they indeed were against it. And I wait for Lincoln to use these findings to fortify her position that, gosh, my people back home just don’t want this public option.

Most people don’t know what a public option is. Public opinion polls on the subject are pointless at best and cynically manipulated at worst.

Lincoln and everyone else in a position of public service and responsibility on this issue ought to ignore polls, stop reacting and start instructing their constituents in the difficult particulars.

We need public opinion to be shaped by contemplation, not contrived by cynicism. We need public opinion to arise from factual and objective analysis, not special interest lies.

What we need is to take our brains out of storage, dust them off and see if they still work. And not to answer the phone.

John Brummett is a 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@

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