Three Wise Women

April 21, 1994|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- You can imagine how excited we were out here in the provinces the other night when we switched on the government television station and saw who'd been sent to Baltimore to give us the hot skinny on health care.

There on the screen, exuding compassion and power from a Johns Hopkins podium, were the beaming faces of the Three Wise Women: Donna Shalala, Barbara Mikulski and Hillary Rodham Clinton. (Congressmen Ben Cardin and Kweisi Mfume, less visible in their supporting roles, were there too.) They were taking turns explaining that we'd all be healthier and happier if we'd just turn our health-care worries over to Washington.

It's a tough sell they've been given. The Clinton administration's health plan is languishing on a gurney in the handicapped-parking area of Capitol Hill. It has tubes up its nose, its breathing is labored, and it looks like only a matter of time until someone mercifully pulls the plug.

The three important ladies who graced the Hopkins podium don't want that to happen, of course, but they inadvertently made a good case for it. It's probably fortunate for them their appearance wasn't broadcast nationally. If it had been, the plan they're pushing would surely have been Kevorkianed by now.

This isn't intended as a personal rap against the Wise Women. It just happens that as public officials, they're vivid symbols of much that's troubling about the Clinton health proposals, as well as about the administration generally. All seem almost obscenely eager to organize everyone else's lives, hire a lot of supervisors, and put the cost on the national credit card. But that doesn't make them second-rate people.

Personally, I only know Ms. Mikulski, who's as amusing and genuine as anyone in politics even when she's making no sense at all. I assume her two companions from the Clinton administration have many splendid qualities, too, and that any of the three would be a pleasant seatmate on a bus trip of moderate duration.

Ms. Shalala, secretary of health and human services, remarked that her golden retriever gets better medical care than many American children. While that may or may not have been a perceptive social commentary, it does demonstrate the caring and compassionate nature of the dog's owner.

I've never met a golden retriever I didn't like. They're big, affable dogs, sometimes a little overweight, and so friendly it's hard to take offense when they drool on you. I can't recall any golden-retriever owners I disliked. On the basis of her choice in dogs Secretary Shalala's presumptively OK too.

Mrs. Clinton, I mean Mrs. Rodham Clinton, I mean Ms. -- anyway, the First Lady -- is harder to figure. She's a nattier dresser than the others, and obviously of a different temperament. She doesn't appear to be a happy warrior like Senator Mikulski, and although her husband has certain golden-retriever qualities she herself doesn't seem, well, doggy.

She's had some bad press lately, to set against the adoring coverage that's set the standard so far, and it seems to have startled her. Having become accustomed to using the selflessness of her intentions to deflect any criticism of her ideas, she quite naturally resents being portrayed in recent news stories as just another corner-cutting political lawyer.

Those stories were probably an aberration, though, and won't last. More typical of the kid-gloves ap- proach to the First Lady was the question asked her by Newsweek's Eleanor Clift last month: ''How angry are you about the way [Whitewater] has mushroomed from a little land scandal into an allegation that you and your husband are corrupt?''

Right. And don't you also think, Mrs. Clinton, that as a result of these Whitewater distractions many helpless children will be deprived of your attentions and probably die?

Health care is a serious issue, and deserves to be treated that way. But serious treatment ought to consist of more than anecdotal hardship stories and assaults on the present structure, which is the Clinton approach to the debate. Unless you're dazzled by the efficiency of the Postal Service and the compassion of the Internal Revenue Service, you'll be hard pressed to imagine how what the Clintons are proposing, even in its currently watered-down form, could possibly work.

Just about everyone would agree that children whose families can't afford to pay for their inoculations ought to receive them at public expense. Most of us would also agree, probably, that portable health insurance that an employee can take from job to job is also a good idea. But it shouldn't require a massive government program to achieve either of those goals.

The Three Wise Women eventually faded from the screen, but in the interest of continuing education I hope their appearance in Baltimore is rebroadcast from time to time. It was entertaining, and it reminded me of P.J. O'Rourke's remark that if you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

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