Easy Ideological Purity

Wrapped in the FlagLater that evening, a big crowd turned out for the meeting, more than usual. Over the last months, Birch attendance had bounced back, and, judging from the crowd in the living room, the looming threat of socialized medicine was enough to pack the place. I took coats, passed coffee, and handed out materials. When everyone had settled, Mother led the Pledge and then announced, “We’ll get right to it.”

She dropped a 33 rpm record on the stereo. “For those of you new to the cause, this is a recording done over a year ago,” she explained. “It outlines perfectly the danger of the new push to force government health care on the elderly. Listen carefully and then we’ll discuss the issue fully.”

In a few seconds, the voice of a rising right-wing star — the dashing, engaging, and charming Ronald Reagan — filled the room. I’d heard this record, Ronald Reagan Speaks Out Against Socialized Medicine, several times before, so I already knew his main point: Americans would never vote for socialism directly, but we could be taken in by things labeled liberalism.

One of those bad liberal things was the current push to impose “statism” through medicine. Americans could fall for this plot because medicine seemed so “humanitarian,” but Reagan knew better. Medical coverage for old people would be the “foot in the door” to socialized medicine.

Real Americans had to wake up and stop this abridgment of freedom. If we didn’t fight hard enough, in sad days to come, old people would sit around and tell their children what it was like in the good old days when “men were free.”

As Reagan’s voice faded, several Birchers clapped enthusiastically.

Mother picked up on Reagan’s themes with additional information on the perils of government health care. “The elderly in America are just fine under the current system,” she explained. “Government health care is unnecessary, expensive, and anti-American. It costs too much and threatens our freedom.”

While the arguments against government-run health care continued, my mind drifted to a story my friend Bob had told me. When he was a toddler, his father took him to a big hospital in the city to visit one of his relatives. The little boy held his father’s hand tight as they walked a long, noisy, crowded corridor. “In here, son,” Mr Besse said. “This is Aunt Maude’s ward.”

Bob gripped his father’s hand tighter. “I don’t like it here,” he said.

“I know. But we have to stay awhile. She’s old and sick. We’re all she’s got. Everyone else is in Sterling, where she used to live. You know, with Grandpa Besse.”

“Send her back there,” little Bob said.

“We can’t,” his dad explained. “This is the only place for her.”

Mr Besse led his son along a row of hospital beds. They stopped in front of a shrunken old lady curled on her side. She never moved or spoke, just moaned. After a few minutes, Mr Besse leaned over, kissed Aunt Maude on the cheek, and turned toward the doorway.

“To this day, I remember the smell and the moaning,” Bob had told me. “Those poor people languished there until they died. Without money, charity wards were their only option.”

I looked at the folks in the living room and assumed that none of them would die in the charity ward of Cook County General Hospital. Hating government-run health care was easy when your doctor made house calls and your hospital stays were in private rooms.

—Claire Conner
Wrapped in the Flag: a Personal History of America’s Radical Right

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