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Daily Howler: Chris Matthews, dumb as a big box of rocks, knows how to make history disappear
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HOW HISTORY GETS DISAPPEARED! Chris Matthews, dumb as a big box of rocks, knows how to make history disappear: // link // print // previous // next //

The occasional glimmer in letters: Sometimes, in letters to the editor, you may get a fleeting glimmer.

How does your country manage to spend two to three times as much on health care as comparable nations? In a rational world, the fact is stunning—but what explains it? Big newspapers have all agreed not to ask. Today, two writers “start” to explain in the New York Times:


It matters little whether reform in the United States involves a government-run option or the conversion of for-profit insurance companies into nonprofits (both would be equally contentious). The important thing is to get the profit motive out of health care.

The United States is the only developed country that allows for-profit companies to eat up 20 cents of every premium dollar to provide insurance for basic health care.

The French health care system, recently ranked by the World Health Organization as the best in the world, has overhead costs of only 5 percent.

Want to reduce health care costs? This would seem to be a good place to start.

“This would be a good place to start,” the writers suggest. But let’s be clear—if we want to explain our mammoth over-spending, this only provides a start.

Per person, we spend slightly more than twice as much as the French spend, per person, on health care. (OECD figures for 2007: United States $7290/France $3601. That’s stunning.) Many people in this country don’t receive health care through insurance companies. But let’s remove the French system’s five percent overhead—and let’s remove twenty percent from our own figure, across the board. The balance would still look like this:

Total spending on health care, per person, 2007, adjusted as described:
United States: $5832
France: $3421

We’re still spending massively more than the French, even after removing that twenty percent—even after removing it across the board!

Where does all our money go? This morning, two writers offer a “start.” But we still haven’t seen a newspaper, magazine, journal, TV show make an attempt at a full-blooded answer. We thought of this when we watched a solid report on last evening’s NewsHour.

Positioned near a display of wooden shoes, Ray Suarez was explaining the health system in the Netherlands. Everyone is covered, of course. At one point, we thought of humorous scenes from Michael Moore’s Sicko as Suarez interviewed a dual-citizenship couple who moved from the U.S. to the Netherlands because of its generous health care system. They moved because their son is autistic:

SUAREZ (10/6/09): Tilo's parents, Barry and Fiona, moved to the Netherlands so they could afford Tilo's care. Barry is Dutch; Fiona is American. The couple was living in the United States when they began to suspect Tilo was autistic.

BARRY VAN DRIEL: We didn't feel we had a choice. We felt we had our backs against the wall financially. We felt that we did have some money in savings, but not very much, and we felt that we were one treatment away from being bankrupt there. We were extremely worried about money and our finances in the United States, and that created a lot of stress. I don't have that concern anymore. There are other concerns, but not that.

SUAREZ: Because they have dual citizenship, the family qualified for coverage. Not only are Tilo's intensive therapies covered, the family also gets support at home and cash for babysitters.

FIONA PASSANTINO: We basically have this personal budget, which would cover up to 8 hours a week of somebody coming into the house and helping us out with day-to-day things, getting him dressed, getting him, you know, on the potty, helping watch him while we take care of business and so on, and then we can go out, and we can go out for overnights, and that's all covered by the government, essentially.

Intensive therapy is covered—and all those extras! But good God! Within a matter of moments, Suarez added this:

SUAREZ: Even with universal coverage, the Netherlands spends less than half what the United States spends per person on health care. While spending half the money, the Netherlands gets better results. The Dutch have longer life expectancy and lower infant mortality. The average Dutch citizen spends about 7 percent of income on health care, and they seem satisfied with the system. The annual Euro Health Consumer Index puts the Netherlands in first place in a survey of patient satisfaction across Europe.

Less than half what we spend, despite the therapy—and the baby-sitters! Does anyone have any idea how that works? We read the Post and the Times every day. We’ve never seen the slightest attempt to work through this giant conundrum.

Your country refuses to discuss climate change, Paul Krugman wrote last week. Yo! Climate change! Get in line! Must we state the obvious fact? At present, your profoundly floundering nation is unable to discuss any topic.

Special report: Recovering history!

PART 3—HOW HISTORY GETS DISAPPEARED: The children live to discuss one topic: Bill Clinton’s disastrous semi-affair with that woman, Miss Lewinsky. And so, when Letterman said he’d been creepy, Dowd knew she must take it there

No other topic makes their blood rush—staves off the primal boredom of life without soul in Versailles. In his last year of life, did Lee Atwater find himself lacking a soul? Today, Dowd flees the void as she types:

DOWD (10/7/09): But it’s absurd to compare a jester (unmarried at the time) to Bill Clinton and other philandering pols. Officeholders run as devoted family men upholding old-fashioned values. They have ambitious public agendas and loyal acolytes whose futures depend on whether these leaders succumb to reckless dalliances.


The main thing Letterman and Clinton had in common was that the danger of a secret affair exploding is enhanced when the staffer is immature enough to scrawl confessions in her diary, as Birkitt did, or go prattling to a prat like Linda Tripp.

Unlike Clinton, Letterman trusted the public—and his bond with them—enough to tell the truth.

Classic Dowd. As always, the voices in her brain insist that she must denigrate the woman. In this passage, Birkitt is “immature.” Earlier in the column, we’re told that she “wasn’t funny or charming.” (Endlessly obvious translation: Why didn’t David choose me?) But more than anything, Lady Dowd’s heart jumps for joy as she finds a way to discuss Bill Clinton’s affair—extremely dumbly, of course.

Did Clinton “run as a devoted family man upholding old-fashioned values?” In fact, he ran, from the first month on, as a man who “caused pain in my marriage.”

Has Letterman “trusted the public...enough to tell the truth?” How could Dowd possibly know such a thing? (Earlier in her column, she twice points out that we don’t yet know the full story.)

And of course, when a politician “succumbs to a reckless dalliance,” the future of his public agenda hangs in the balance in large part due to broken-souled ninnies like Dowd, who will still jump at the chance to discuss the dalliance some fourteen years later. It’s absurd to compare Letterman to Clinton? Who’s doing so, except ghouls like Dowd? Earlier, she had also typed this:

DOWD: After David Letterman acknowledged that he’d had flings with young assistants, some commentators talked about it in the same breath as Roman Polanski, who drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old. That’s outrageous.

Really? Which commentators talked that way? Dowd forgets to say.

To this day, they live for one thing—the chance to talk about that woman. And so, when Taylor Branch published The Clinton Tapes, pundits scanned its 700 pages looking for talk of Lewinsky. At Salon, Joan Walsh skewers Evan Thomas for his time-honored focus on this topic. In this passage, Walsh gets it right:

WALSH (10/6/09): Who really thinks we don't have enough insight into what Clinton thought and felt about the Lewinsky affair? What grown-up journalist who lived through Whitewater, the Lewinsky scandal and impeachment, in the prosperous days before 9/11 and the Bush economic collapse, doesn't hate themselves in the cold light of (post-Bush) day?

Sadly, most of them don't. Many are reliving minor Clinton issues through the lens of Branch's book, at the neglect of the major ones, including my friend Chris Matthews on “Hardball.”

Like his simpering pal Dowd, Matthews chased Miss Lewinsky too, in his painful, tragicomical session with Branch on last Thursday’s Hardball. Last Friday, we mentioned a forbidden fact which Branch forthrightly stated that night (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 10/2/09). Today, let’s cringe a bit as we pick through the mind of a cracked, corporate-run multimillionaire. That of course would be Chris Matthews, Branch’s host that night.

Branch’s book runs more than 700 pages. It covers eight years of American history. Matthews had only “six or seven minutes” to discuss it, he said—and yet, here’s what this broken soul wanted to know. Like you, we cringed when Matthews tried to denigrate Branch, addressing him as “buddy:”

MATTHEWS (10/1/09): Welcome back to Hardball.

President Bill Clinton gave extraordinary access to historian Taylor Branch—by the way, who is a hell of an historian. He wrote all about the Martin Luther King years. Throughout his eight years of the presidency, Taylor got to talk to the president. And it was all off the record until now.

The tapes of their interviews are in Clinton’s possession. But, after each meeting with the president, Taylor Branch very cleverly spoke his own recollections into a tape recorder.

This is how you do it. It’s called trade-craft. And those tapes form the basis of this new book called The Clinton Tapes, which, I tell you, is going to sell. It’s wrestling history with the president. Taylor Branch, thank you, buddy.

BRANCH: Thanks, Chris.

MATTHEWS: This is an amazing story, because I know you like Bill Clinton in many ways, but I think you got some journalist skepticism here that I want—that`s the part I want here right now.

What is the story— We only have about six or seven minutes, but there’s two big questions most people have about Bill Clinton. Of course, there are Clinton lovers out there. But there are some people that keep wondering about a couple things. Not that he had this dalliance with Monica Lewinsky. But his inability to sort of deal with it ever.

He just—what is, what is his way of dealing with it? How did he say—does this— “I crapped up? I blew it? I cracked up? I—” How does he explain how he let his presidency get screwed up?

(For openers, note the silly pandering as Matthews tried to gain purchase with Branch. When Branch “very cleverly spoke into a tape recorder,” he was displaying his brilliant “trade-craft!” Go ahead—enjoy a good laugh! Who else would have thought of that?)

Silly pandering to the side, Matthews ran straight to Clinton/Lewinsky. It’s amusing to see the endless projection, as Matthews—a man who has never been able to deal with this topic—asks about Clinton’s supposed “inability to deal with it ever.” Clinton of course has “dealt with” the topic by moving on to vast work around the world. Matthews continues to sit on cable, talking each night about silly trivia. Given six minutes to discuss eight years of our history, he of course went straight to that woman.

But Branch, the historian, went somewhere else. He went to the crucial American history which has been thoroughly disappeared as corporate pay-boys like Matthews recite all the clan’s latest lines. In this response, Branch talked about your actual recent history—history which has been disappeared:

BRANCH (continuing directly): Well, first of all, he was frustrated that his presidency was off-course and—and besieged by tabloid scandals for six years, of which the Lewinsky was the only one that proved any substance.

He forfeited the attempt to rise above the cynicism of the tabloid era by validating all of that cynicism with Monica Lewinsky. And his only explanation was that he felt sorry for himself that he was trying so hard to be a good president, and all anybody wanted to talk about was Filegate and Travelgate and whether or not he had killed Vince Foster.

It was never clear if Branch understood that he was talking to cable’s prime proponent of the tabloid cynicism of the Clinton/Gore years. No one pushed the garbage like Matthews, especially when the warfare was transferred to Candidate Gore. No one worked harder to destroy your nation’s political culture, in the way Branch described. For our money, it was never clear if Branch—an intelligent man who probably doesn’t watch Hardball—understood that key fact Thursday night.

(To watch the entire segment, click this.)

But then, very few people understand such facts, because our history has been disappeared. Pay-boys like Matthews run to Lewinsky, hiding the years in which they and their upper-class crowd cheered the conservative crackpots on in their gonzo pursuit of Bill Clinton. (By the time the target was shifted to Gore, people like Matthews played the lead role in the hunt.) All through the session between Branch and Matthews, you see the primal struggle between those who want to discuss real history, and those who want your real history disappeared.

Matthews kept talking about Miss Lewinsky—asking the type of inane, tired questions his clan has now asked for eleven straight years. Branch kept talking about the real history this sick sad cabal has disappeared. Finally, Branch even said the following. Branch gave voice to fourteen words you can’t say on cable TV:

BRANCH: More specifically, the New York Times and the Washington Post drove the Whitewater scandals. And he had always looked up to them. And he thought they were sucked into some sort of tabloid nether-world that was detracting from his agenda for the country, which he—and his mission that he saw was to try to rescue the country from years of cynicism.

Say what? It was the very top of the mainstream press corps which drove the decade of war against Clinton? Tools like Matthews have always hidden that fact. so have tools like the David Corns—the Dionnes, the Frank Riches. Pundits all understand the real world: If you plan to play regular Hardball, you simply don’t mention such actual history. Instead, you simper about that woman—and about alleged screaming matches between the twin targets, Clinton and Gore.

You hide the shape of our recent history. You keep your clan’s conduct disappeared.

Throughout this session (which ran 8:24), Branch kept talking about the real history; Matthews kept clowning and talking Lewinsky. At the start, he said there are “two big questions most people have about Bill Clinton.” Full disclosure: Reading through the transcript today, we’re still not sure we know what the second question is.

Eventually, though, Matthews asked the following, showing us the sorry shape of mental life inside Versailles. How insipid do the Matthews/Dowds get? He had eight minutes to discuss eight years. Empty-souled, though, he asked this:

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about Bill Clinton himself. It seems to me he was a genius. He’s really smart. And I’ve always wondered about something personally. He will be interviewing you or talking to you. And yet he uses the extra 40 IQ points to do crossword puzzles or to play Hearts with you. What is it about a guy with that incredible talent, why he doesn’t apply it directly to the presidency, for example? Why he has to always be using his brain to sort of slice off some of it for other uses? What is that about?

Given eight minutes to discuss eight years, Matthews had a crucial question:Why does Clinton do crosswords so much?

In substantial detail, Branch’s book describes Bill Clinton’s mammoth work load. But let’s be frank—Matthews didn’t read it! His clan has only one thing on its mind. His clan longs to discuss that woman, through which trick your history disappears.

Tomorrow: Where’s the rest of us?