In those good years – everyone has a few – after the long overnight nonstop flight from Los Angeles, the first thing to do in Paris each December, before hitting the streets, was to turn on the television in the hotel room and, while unpacking a few things, get a feel for the language. That’s important when you travel solo and have no one else to help out. All the French classes in the world are useless – that’s not how people talk, and the prospect of two weeks without hearing a word of English was always a little frightening. Luckily, the French like dubbed American television shows, and watching a bit of “Friends” or “Cheers” or “The Simpsons” dubbed in French did the trick – the colloquial English came out in colloquial French, and only colloquial language is useful in real life. It was even better if you remembered the specific episode – your memory provided the subtitles. You were ready for the kids at the Café Bonaparte down on the corner. The oddest channel, Arte, also carried Homer Simpson and crew dubbed in German, but Arte is multinational and that didn’t matter much, unless you were planning a side-trip to Munich or something. All in all it was very cosmopolitan, in a funky sort of way. From the hotel window there was a full-on view of the old church across the street where Descartes is buried. I think, therefore I am. That somehow made sense now. It all came together.
Pop culture has made the world smaller, or at least more uniform, in spite of the language difficulties, and the odd thing, on one cold December night in Paris long ago, was watching a French documentary on KCRW – the rather famous public radio station out here in Santa Monica.
That was a bit surreal, as KCRW is just down the road here, and everyone out here listens to their beyond-hip Indie music, and their original radio dramas with famous Hollywood stars, slumming, and their left-leaning but thoughtful political shows, or they used to. For a time, each week, they even used to carry a few hours of live-feed from NovaPlanet – the Paris techno-trance FM station – but those days are long gone. KCRW is just not hip now, and they’re the bad guys out here too.
There’s a reason for that. They ruined our Sunday mornings. They took Le Show off the air, moving it to online-steaming only. Harry Shearer was gone, along with the cleverest and best satirical show in America. Jon Stewart and Bill Maher are pikers compared to Harry Shearer, and Shearer was the ultimate LA guy – a former child actor who appeared on the old Jack Benny Show and in an Abbott and Costello movie or two, and in the pilot for Leave to Beaver, and then gave us This Is Spinal Tap in 1984, and who also does all those great voices on that Simpsons show – Montgomery Burns, Waylon Smithers, Ned Flanders, Reverend Lovejoy, Kent Brockman, Doctor Hibbert, Principal Skinner, and on and on and on. Shearer knows how to skewer American culture and politics. In his deadpan and subtle way, he’s deadly. Hell, he’s lethal. And he’s gone now, at least out here. Other public radio stations still carry Le Show, so maybe people in Albany listen to him each Sunday morning, but that just doesn’t seem right. He was one of us. Perhaps someone carries his show in Paris. It is a small world after all.
What everyone missed more than anything is that “Apologies of the Week” segment – a deadpan precise reading, word for word, of this public figure or that’s apology for something gone terribly wrong – apologies that weren’t really apologies (sorry if anyone was so stupid to be offended by what I said or did but meant no harm at all) and apologies that were craven, or that changed the subject entirely, or just made no sense at all. Shearer added no commentary. He didn’t have to. Public apologies are inherently absurd. They’re admitting to what you’re really not admitting at all, and that’s a peculiarly American thing. There may be no way to render any of these apologies in French. Public figures in France don’t apologize. They shrug. Germans sneer.
This would have been Harry Shearer’s big week, because it was Obama’s turn to apologize:
President Obama bowed Thursday night to mounting criticism that he had misled the American people about the health care law, apologizing to people who were forced off their health insurance plans by the Affordable Care Act despite “assurances from me.”
In an interview with NBC News, Mr. Obama said that he did not do enough to ensure that the law did not force the termination of insurance policies that people like because they do not meet the law’s new coverage requirements.
“It means a lot to them. And it’s scary to them. And I am sorry that they, you know, are finding themselves in this situation, based on assurances they got from me,” Mr. Obama told Chuck Todd of NBC in an interview in the Diplomatic Room of the White House. “We’ve got to work hard to make sure that we hear them and that we’re going to do everything we can to deal with folks who find themselves in a tough position as a consequence of this.”
“If you like your health plan, you will be able to keep your health plan” – that was what he had kept saying. Hundreds of thousands of people then began receiving letters of cancellation from their insurance companies. Those were almost all middle-class folks in the private insurance market, the self-employed or freelancers or contractors who don’t get their health insurance from an employer, and not older folks on Medicare or the poor and disabled on Medicaid either, so this is a tiny fraction of the insured, but the damage was done:
“We know that lying to Congress is a crime, but unfortunately, lying to the American people is not,” Senator John Cornyn, Republican of Texas, said Wednesday during a congressional hearing on Capitol Hill.
In the NBC interview, Mr. Obama said he had not purposely misled anyone. He said it was always his intention that no one should lose a plan he wanted to keep. But he emphasized that most people who were forced off a current plan would be able to find new insurance that was cheaper and provided better coverage.
“I think we, in good faith, have been trying to take on a health care system that has been broken for a very long time,” Mr. Obama said. “And what we’ve been trying to do is to change it in the least disruptive way possible.”
He added that “they’re benefiting from more choice and competition.”
“But obviously, we didn’t do a good enough job in terms of how we crafted the law,” he said. “And, you know, that’s something that I regret. That’s something that we’re going to do everything we can to get fixed.”
That seems pretty straightforward, but he wasn’t admitting there was anything essentially wrong with the law. Obama wasn’t offering an apology for the cancellation notices themselves. Eliminating certain health plans from the market – ones that the Affordable Care Act designates as too skimpy, not even covering the basics – is a feature, not a bug, of the Affordable Care Act. Yep, these hard-working folks – they’re not poor or old farts or cripples after all – will have to buy real insurance, insurance that actually covers things. Obama could have said that food used to be cheaper too, before there were standards about worms, and fecal matter, and salmonella and all the rest. We lost the freedom to buy the cheap stuff there, and we’re losing it here too, but the administration is on the defensive. Obama had to apologize for what are essentially minimum government standards for one more of so many products that are already regulated. The government was set up to do just that, so Obama was actually apologizing for the Commerce Clause in the Constitution of all things, but, yes, some people are going to pay more now – and they’re not the poor and disabled, who everyone on the right seems to despise these days, or the old folks on Medicare everyone takes for granted, and most of them aren’t even minority folk. They’re all salt-of-the-earth white folks, trying to make in on their own. Republicans have decided to call them the Real Americans here. Obama, the black dude, really did have to apologize, even if he hedged as much as he could.
Andrew Sullivan discusses that:
The current conventional wisdom is that the ACA is a disaster. Democrats up for re-election in 2014 are running away from it, there remain, according to [Health and Human Services Director Kathleen] Sebelius, hundreds of fixes still to be made to the website, the stories of canceled policies have dominated the headlines and the president has rightly been lambasted for grotesque mismanagement of the federal government. He had one core domestic goal for his second term, it seems to me, and he flunked it. Worse, he cannot even admit that he simplified the sale so badly he repeated something untrue. If the website’s functionality is not substantially fixed by December 1, all bets are off.
And yet … Americans have not changed their minds on the ACA much over the last few months.
Sullivan then reviews the data. Nothing has changed. Everyone, including Republicans, still likes every single feature of the Affordable Care Act – no consideration of preexisting conditions and all the rest – although the Republicans now hate the individual mandate, that fine for not buying any insurance at all, even if they once loved that idea, because it was their idea in the first place. The Affordable Care Act, all of it put together, doesn’t quite poll as well, but the majority still likes it. Call it Obamacare and the numbers turn negative, but none of the numbers have actually changed through all the turmoil. In fact, since September, support for the Affordable Care Act has actually risen and opposition has remained flat, so Sullivan argues that none of the current crap is “electoral poison” at all, and Obama might be playing a “long game” here:
I don’t want to overstate the case but I think it’s also foolish to understate the impact on many people who will get health insurance for the first time in their lives. This reality will matter politically in the end. … People are also not dumb enough to think that cancellation of their policies or sudden premium hikes started with the ACA. It was a constant in the private sector for years. Yes, disruption will tick a lot of people off. But Obama still has three years to get this entrenched – and once in place, it will be mighty hard to remove, for the exact reasons that people are so upset right now. Disruption is always unnerving, especially in an area like your health.
For Sullivan, who’s all on his own now, with his own autonomous website, the Dish, this is personal:
I’ve been very lucky to have had excellent employer-based healthcare for years. But always at the back of my mind was the fear that I might leave a job with that kind of security, like at the New Republic or the Atlantic and the Beast, and be stranded and bankrupted by my pre-existing condition, HIV. We’re looking into our own health insurance plan right now for the Dish in the next year, and I’ll let you know how the process goes. But like many, we haven’t been in a mad rush, we have an insurance broker to help us through the process, and it is hard to express the relief I feel that I cannot be denied coverage because I am a survivor of the plague. If we have to pay more, it’s well worth the relief.
I can’t believe I’m the only one who feels this way.
He isn’t, but he’s one of those for whom the perfect will never be the enemy of the good:
It’s not the health insurance reform I would have wanted – I’d prefer ending the employer subsidy, mandating no exclusion because of pre-existing conditions and creating a more vibrant individual market, including the option of catastrophic insurance. But the GOP never offered that and they are still not offering it.
I also feel – call me a squish if you want – that baseline health security, while not a right, is an enormous social good, and that social insurance against the random vicissitudes of life in no way compromises free-market principles. I also realized when I started a small business that I could not personally employ anyone and not provide insurance, without violating my conscience. The step from that to embracing universal care is obvious.
So count me among those who suspect the current fiasco is just the beginning of this story.
So here’s a conservative who actually thinks that universal social insurance against the random vicissitudes of life would do wonders for a free-market economy, and even increase freedom itself, because it would free everyone to go around being all entrepreneurial or whatever, because they’re now not worried sick about getting sick. Sullivan seems to think this would lift a massive and rather absurd deadweight burden we’ve been carrying on our backs for far too long, but there he knows, that among the current crop of those who call themselves conservatives, he is the only one who feels this way:
To listen to the Republican critics, you’d think the previous system was wonderful – whereas we all know it wasn’t, that the private health sector was grotesquely inefficient, and that its costs kept soaring, and free-riders were undermining the entire enterprise. At some point – especially when the GOP has to find a nominee who can appeal beyond the base – the Republicans will have to shut up or put up. And I suspect a platform of repealing what Obama is constructing without replacing it with something very similar will be a big vote-loser.
In short, Obama had nothing to apologize for, really. And Obama didn’t really apologize, except for oversimplifying things. Obama is paying the price for that now, but Sullivan suggests the price is minimal, or will be minimal eventually. It would be interesting to hear how Harry Shearer spins this, but then, out here, Harry Shearer can’t be heard.
There were other apologies that were also pretty cool:
Guns and Ammo Magazine, the “world’s most widely read firearms magazine,” has fired contributing editor Dick Metcalf after the publication received immense backlash for its December 2013 issue featuring his editorial advocating for gun control.
“Way too many gun owners still seem to believe that any regulation of the right to keep and bear arms is an infringement,” Metcalf wrote in the column titled “Let’s Talk Limits.” “The fact is, all constitutional rights are regulated, always have been, and need to be.”
“All U.S. citizens have a right to keep and bear arms,” he added, “but I do not believe that they have a right to use them irresponsibly.”
The backlash was immense. Readers flocked to social media to decry the magazine’s editorial decision and threaten to cancel their subscriptions. All the attention resulted in the magazine’s editor Jim Bequette posting a letter online apologizing to readers and announcing that Guns & Ammo has fired the author.
That was followed by the apology that Harry Shearer would have a great deal of fun with:
“Dick Metcalf has had a long and distinguished career as a gun writer, but his association with ‘Guns & Ammo’ has officially ended,” Bequette wrote after reassuring readers “Our commitment to the Second Amendment is unwavering.”
Bequette then turned the blame inward and personally apologized for the publishing of the editorial. “In publishing Metcalf’s column, I was untrue to that tradition, and for that I apologize,” he wrote. “His views do not represent mine – nor, most important, Guns & Ammo’s. It is very clear to me that they don’t reflect the views of our readership either.”
“I made a mistake by publishing the column,” he continued. “I thought it would generate a healthy exchange of ideas on gun rights. I miscalculated, pure and simple. I was wrong, and I ask your forgiveness.”
Sorry for the lapse – reasonableness and a healthy exchange of ideas have no place here, and never will have any place here. Harry Shearer could read that in the voice of Reverend Lovejoy. That’d work.
And this is quite curious:
Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), facing multiple allegations of plagiarism, told the New York Times in an interview Tuesday that his demanding schedule is partially to blame for him signing off on poorly vetted or sourced speeches and op-eds.
“We need to get stuff earlier, but it’s hard,” Paul told the Times. “We probably take on more than we should be doing.”
“Things are done quickly and in a hurry, and sometimes I get some things sent to me while giving a speech – I’m looking down at my phone saying ‘read this for approval in 20 minutes,'” he added. “We write something every week for The Washington Times, and I literally am riding around in a car in between things trying to figure out if I can approve it.”
Harry Shearer could read that in the voice of Montgomery Burns. That’s an explanation – it’s not MY fault you fools – not an apology – but it should have been an apology:
Senior advisor Doug Stafford released a statement earlier Tuesday that ensured Paul’s office would put in place a system in which footnotes would be made available upon request. The office restructuring was prompted by a report indicating Paul lifted a Washington Times op-ed nearly verbatim from an article published in The Week. The senator previously accused of using material from Wikipedia, among other sources, without attribution.
“What we are going to do from here forward, if it will make people leave me the hell alone, is we’re going to do them like college papers,” Paul told the Times. “We’re going to try to put out footnotes.”
The man hates footnotes, and his staff hates footnotes, but if that’s what it takes to keep the assholes quiet and get them off his back, they’ll get their damned footnotes – grump, grump, grump – but maybe that’s an apology:
The Kentucky Republican’s contrition is a reversal from his response to the allegations over the weekend, when he told ABC News he was “being unfairly targeted by a bunch of hacks and haters.”
He did give in a bit, after all, but the newspaper that once endorsed him, the Lexington Herald Leader, sees things a bit differently:
Paul said he accepted responsibility and then went on quickly to slough it off, laying it on his rapid ascent to national prominence, which he sought relentlessly, on his staff, which he hired, and finally, of course, on “the haters” who just want to bring the great man down.
Paul appears to believe profoundly in his own exceptionalism, including that the rules don’t apply to him. Even worse, he now wants to rewrite the rules.
These folks are not impressed with their senator:
Paul’s sense of self-grandeur is so great that, like a pouting child, he threatened to leave politics altogether if everyone keeps being mean to him. “People can think what they want. I can go back to being a doctor any time,” he said.
If he can’t do any better than this when the heat is on, even those who were Paul “lovers” might be ready to say, “Okay, go.”
Ouch! Rand Paul should make a private call to Barack Obama, on the sly, and ask the cool black dude how one does this apology thing, really. Obama’s a nice guy. He’d explain it, but Rand Paul would never make such a call, which is the sort of thing that keeps Harry Shearer in business, even if Harry Shearer is hard to find these days. Maybe it’s time for another trip to Paris. He might be on the radio there, but then he’d be dubbed in French. Life isn’t easy.