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The Road ForwardIt seems that many Americans tune right out when they see another story about health care these days, so I’m not going to make this a story about health care.  Instead,  I’m going tell you a tale about a dream and two buses.  I hope it delivers the point I feel compelled to make.
 
It’s like I’m trapped in a dream, a dream so vivid and real I find myself questioning if I’m awake or asleep. It starts with me finding myself crammed in a crowded bus terminal with scores of other Americans waiting for a bus, any bus, to arrive at last.  We’ve been huddled together for the last fifty years, watching one bus after another just pass the terminal right on by, but now, finally,  after the eternal wait, two buses pull in together, but neither is marked. 
 
Desperate to leave the station, I spring to my feet to go ask the bus drivers what their destinations are.  I’m filled with hope that this miserable way station will soon be behind me once and for all. 
 
So I approach the first bus. It’s old, dusty and dented and has obviously seen a lot of hard miles.
 
I climb on and pose my question to the driver, “What’s your destination?”  The driver sets his beaten cap back on his head and says, “This bus is on the road to a new beginning. You should know before deciding on which bus to take that on this bus there are going to be many stops along the way, there will be bumps and potholes, curves and traffic.  This bus is always crowded, we’ve got nurses and mechanics, teachers and plumbers.  We’ve got hard working couples and single parents,  we’ve got seniors and students, and a whole bunch in between, all of them doing what they can to make ends meet. Since there are so many that need to ride this bus, the fare will be what you can afford and no one will be turned away. I should also tell you that we will be stopping for anyone broken down on the side of the road and offer them assistance or even a lift.  If we happen to break down along the way ourselves, we’ve got all the tools with us we could possibly need to fix any problem that arises, but we will be asking everyone on board to work together to get us back on the road and you may have to get your hands dirty. Our destination is the journey itself – we’re going that way my friend.”  He points his calloused finger through the grit covered windshield and adds with a smile, “forward.”  Not knowing what to think, I thank him and climb off for the other bus.
 
This bus is different, this bus is shiny and clean.  This bus looks sleek and fast. This bus not only has a driver, but a tour guide with a microphone sitting right behind him.  This bus has air conditioning and little plasma TVs on the back of every wide, comfortable seat. This bus is really, really nice. 
 
So I pose the same question to the driver, “What’s your destination?”  This driver doesn’t answer the question, he just shrugs and points over his shoulder to the tour guide holding the microphone and says, “don’t ask me, I’m just the driver, the guy with the mic tells me where to go.” 
 
Mr. Microphone takes his cue and starts his well polished pitch, “Welcome friend, you’ve come to the right bus.  I heard you ask where this bus goes, well, that’s the beauty of it, this is an express-liner that is going exactly where we know you want it to go.  There will be no stops along the way, no delays, no traffic and you will feel like you are driving on air. We mainly cater to captains of industry, CEOs and leaders of business, so there is plenty of elbow room and we have spared no tax dollar to guarantee a comfortable and enjoyable ride for our select clientele. Our fare is simple and affordable, only one crisp, new, three dollar bill.  If you don’t happen to have one, have no fear, we will gladly sell you one for five dollars. Should we experience any unexpected trouble on our journey, you will be comforted to know help is just a cell call away, I have the best cell phone money can buy right here.  We will have a highly skilled team on the spot in no time and be right on our way. If you want to arrive in style, this is really the only choice.”
 
That’s all I needed to hear.  After 50 years in a crowded room with stale air, only one word popped in my head and just as quickly escaped from my lips, “Sold!”  I reached into my pocket and found four singles and enough change to make five because I certainly didn’t have a three dollar bill. It’s all I had left, but this was going to be well worth it.  It was a meager price to pay for such comfort and luxury.
 
As I made my way to my window seat, I was pleased that no one had sat down next to me when I heard the hiss of the doors closing.  I looked around and counted six other people, well dressed professional types, all sitting relaxed and in comfort.  From my seat I had a view of the other bus and had spent the last few minutes mesmerized by the chaos.  So many people were trying to squeeze in, there were kids running around, and they had a devil of a time trying to get an older gentleman in a wheelchair up and onto the bus.  But the driver I spoke to was on the case and had a few husky men from the bus get out and help lift him in.
 
Their bus got on the road before ours.  We were still getting a speech from Mr. Microphone detailing all the frills available to us, champagne, sparkling water, roasted duck, filet mignon, and 4 spacious bathrooms for the seven of us.  Our seats could fold open into beds and there was even a Swedish masseuse available at no charge.  Ahh, this was the life.
 
I was so comfortable and relaxed, I must have dozed off, but I was awakened by Mr. Microphone and felt the bus starting to slow down.  “If you were wondering if you made the right choice choosing our line, let me draw your attention to the roadside just up ahead.” 
 
There was the other bus, broken down on the side of the road. They had blown a tire and caused some damage to the underside.  We had slowed to a crawl so everyone was sure to have a good look at what they were missing.  I noticed a few passengers getting the spare, another working the jack and the mechanic I had met at the terminal sliding under to see what he could do.  The teacher was leading the children in a game to occupy them and the nurse was caring for the elderly gentleman in the wheelchair that seemed to be having difficulty in the desert heat. 
 
“Shouldn’t we stop to help?”, I asked. 
 
Mr. Microphone took on an arrogant tone and said,”This is an express, remember?  We don’t stop for anything or anyone.  They made their choice and picked that bus, and now they are just going to have to live with it.  I consider it a lesson well learned for the next time they face the choice.”
 
I felt dirty and cheap, but there was nothing I could do.  I couldn’t go back to sleep after that.  I just found myself thinking about those people stuck in the hot sun and I started connecting some dots about what Mr. Microphone had said earlier.  I hadn’t spent one second applying any kind of thought when he was originally making his pitch to me about this wonderful bus, I was too blinded by all the bells and whistles, and I was too eager to get the hell out of that terminal at along last. I began to feel genuine fear wash over me. How do they know where I want to go without ever asking?  How could the seven of us be trying to get to the same place if we are from such obviously different stations in life? 
 
Just then came a loud bang, quickly followed by the familiar rat-tat-tat of a blown tire.  Our bus veered out of control and went off the road, nose first into a ditch and came to a jarring halt.  Everyone seemed to be physically OK, but very angry none the less.  These passengers were not used to inconvenience and it showed.
 
“Don’t worry people, we’ll be out of this in no time, I’m just going to make a call,” bellowed Mr. Microphone with his amplified voice.  He dialed and held the phone to his ear.  A frustrated look flashed on his face and he hung up and tapped the keys again, only to have the same look on his face with a tinge of panic creeping in this time.  He held the phone higher, nothing. He went outside and tried again, same routine and the same look, anger added this time.
 
When Mr. Microphone re boarded the bus, he tried to put on the calmest look he could, “I don’t seem to be able to get a signal out here in the middle of the desert.”  This was bad – this was really bad, and we all knew it.
 
After a few tumultuous hours, panic and anger had a solid grip on all of us.  There was not enough food or water for this delay.  There was no help in sight and all other emotions were quickly turning to rage.  My fellow passengers, new to calamity and desperation,  were coming apart at the seams. 
 
Just when all hope was almost extinguished, there was a faint sound getting louder.  The steady, rhythmic beat of an old engine was heading our way.  It was the other bus and they were coming to a stop right behind us.  The driver stepped out and came tapping on the glass doors.  “You seem to be in quite a pickle, what can we do to help?”
 
“Do you have  a cell phone I could use to call for some help?”, Mr. Microphone asked, somewhat humbled by what he had been through for the better part of a miserable day. 
 
“Don’t carry one, everyone knows there is not a reliable signal out here,” chuckled the driver,  “we’ve picked up quite a few troubled souls stuck out here in the desert already, so I don’t have enough room for all of you, but let me see what I can do to help.”  
 
With that he disappeared back to his bus.  I could barely hear him trying to get his passengers to settle down so he could explain the situation. After a few minutes that were inaudible to me, the doors to his bus swung open again and he stepped off  onto the parched earth below.  But this time he was not alone.  One by one, every able-bodied passenger on board filed out behind him, and there were a lot of them.
 
The mechanic had a look and determined that the stranded bus could still drive if they changed the tire and got it out of the ditch.  The other bus driver started forming groups and telling them what to do.  As the mob circled us, you could sense nervousness from the pampered elite that I had shared my journey with so far, but not one uttered even a single peep of protest.  The way the bus was perched in the ditch, the mechanic didn’t even need a jack to change the tire and did so in a flash.  Then I heard the bus driver in a loud baritone voice, “One…two…three…LIFT !” It felt like the earth started moving. One back breaking inch by back breaking inch, the bus leveled out and when he finally called for everyone to drop it, you could tell we were back on even ground.
 
The driver came back to the door dripping with sweat and said, “There you are, all ready to go, enjoy your trip folks, make it a safe one.”  With that he waved his hand and called for his passengers to get back on their bus.
 
When Mr. Microphone said, “See folks, nothing to worry about, I told you I would get us out of here,” I almost threw up, what arrogance, what gall. I knew I had to get off this bus, I knew I didn’t belong here.  So, I snatched up my things and bolted for the door, not even saying goodbye.
 
I ran to the bus behind us and pounded on the door, just as the the driver started it up.  “I want to ride with you, can you take me with you?”  He cracked the door and said smiling, “I think we can make room for one more, how much of a fare can you afford to pay?”  An electric shock pummeled my system when I heard those words, I had given everything I had left in my pocket for the other ride.  “I gave the other driver everything I had left,” I said with a quivering voice. 
 
“I told you back at the station, no one will ever be turned away, climb on and find a seat.” the driver said with a knowing nod.
 
With that I started a new journey.  Maybe it wasn’t going to be a journey of comfort and convenience, but I did have peace of mind and I knew that on this bus I would never have the sick feeling in my stomach as we drove by troubled souls without bothering ourselves to stop and assist.  I also knew that I would never find myself stuck in a desert all alone with no one there to hear a cry for help.  Everything we could possibly need to make the journey forward is already on our bus and if we work together, there is no problem we will not be able to fix along the way.
 
I’m awake now, and I hope you are too, because today is not a dream.  Those two buses are arriving at the station right now. 
 
So keep this in the front of your mind.  It’s not about the divisive rhetoric you’ll hear spewed from a microphone, or the zeal and practiced polish with which it is repetitively delivered, it’s about knowing which driver is content to leave you stranded in the desert and which one won’t be.  It’s about choosing substance over flash and style.  It’s about realizing that it’s the crowded bus filled with fellow Americans from all walks of life that will always allow us to overcome any and all adversity we may face on the twisting, bumpy road that stretches ever forward to the glowing horizon we all instinctively seek.  It’s about which driver will incompetently trust your fate to a missing signal in the desert, and which one will have you trust in each other instead.
 
I hope this will help you choose wisely … but if you don’t, make sure you have a three dollar bill handy, or the ride to nowhere is going to cost you almost double the advertised price.
 
And yes, I lied.  I guess this story is about health care after all. Fifty years of waiting is long enough. 
 
All aboard!
speed limit infinityThere are moments in each our lives that we just know are going to be the snapshots our minds will use to remember important events that must never be forgotten.  Sometimes they are snapshots that are uniquely our own, like watching a child’s first steps, or the first moment you laid eyes on your spouse-to-be and felt the invisible lighting wrack your senses. But sometimes they are snapshots that we all share, like Armstrong’s boot hitting the surface of the moon, the last moments of Kennedy’s life as a sniper’s bullets found their mark, or the still vivid horror of September 11th 2001. 
 
Thursday’s health care summit may very well turn out to be the snapshot of the Obama presidency and a seven hour highlight reel of how the 21st century will see to it that Lincoln’s words remain immortal, that a “Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the Earth.”
 
I originally envisioned writing a different piece  to recap Thursday’s historic health summit. I thought I would be doing what every pundit does, giving you my own blow-by-blow account of who the winners and losers were in this free-to-view, televised, bipartisan match up that was intended to be a political game of Bridge, not only as a metaphor about closing a divide, but as a game intended to see if opposing parties could be thrust upon each other from across a table, check out the cards they were dealt, and try to work as a team to actually win a hand for the American people.  But, I changed my mind. This turned out to be too important and it deserves to be more than that. I can only hope I can rise to the challenge and find a way to articulate the history that I saw unfold Thursday.
 
I’ll admit it.  When President Obama got in front of the cameras during the most viewed television event in history, this year’s Super Bowl, and presented the challenge to Congress to come together and try to move forward on Health Care Reform legislation, something  that has been held just out of our reach for the last five decades, I thought to myself, finally, here will be a forum to separate the posers from the players.  This will be the chance to for the American people to see if their wishes are truly being represented by those they charged with the task to be their voice.  What I was privileged enough to witness instead was a mechanism of transparency that I hope will be repeated with every major piece of legislation that proves to be so philosophically contentious that our legislators simply can not find a way to build bridge long enough to span an ocean’s divide and put the American people back into the conversation.
 
It was amazing to hear from so many old-time career congressmen and congresswomen that they have never been part of anything like this summit in all their years and that they have never seen this body act so civilly with each other for so long when meeting over a piece of legislation that has such deep party lines drawn in the sand.  Why not?  If they don’t normally behave like the quasi-nobles they want us to think they are, why do they insist on calling each other distinguished?  Now we know they can all walk the walk when the cameras are on, let’s hope they can take this obviously new lesson to budget meetings and the endless hours of debate that are required to build a meaningful consensus and hammer out the details on the things that Americans want and deserve.
 
When President Obama made his opening remarks, he tried to set the tone that would be needed for progress.  He didn’t want it to be another day of focusing on the details that divide, he wanted to focus on the details that both parties seem to embrace, things like the unacceptable practice of allowing pre-existing conditions to be used as a device to deny or drop someone’s coverage, bringing down premiums for everyone, and getting decent, accessible health care for the frustrated legions of hard working Americans and small businesses that have nowhere else to turn for help.
 
But the moment I saw the Republican Whip, Eric Cantor, and Republican Minority Leader, John Boehner, walk into the room risking a hernia by lugging in the 2400 page House and Senate Bill, I knew where this was meeting was going to go.  What I didn’t know is that they would be getting my thanks today.  Thank you for sticking steadfast to your guns and personifying the word “unyielding” from a minority position, thank you for having such an obtuse opinion of the American people that you thought courtroom theatrics would provide the smoke and mirrors needed to misdirect the viewing public from the big white elephant in the room.  Thank you for showing us all your true colors.  Thank you for helping America see the light.  And most of all, thank you for lighting the torches for us on the once dark path to a reconciliation vote that will see the simplest and most ancient tenet of democracy find its bloom, the majority rules.
 
Barack Obama did what great Presidents do, he engaged the American public in the process.  But at the same time, he showed us once again what kind of truly unique enigma he is.  Every time he faces an opponent, they think it’s going to be a cake walk.  Ask Hillary Clinton, or even better, ask John McCain what it is exactly that he is reminded of every day. They all seem to make the mistake of thinking that because he doesn’t engage in the customary chest-pounding we’ve grown accustomed to, they will be able to lead him around like a puppy on leash and have their way.
 
Time and time again he proves to be something else, something I can best describe as a shy matador. I know it’s an oxymoron, after all, there is nothing normally shy about a matador, but it sums up what I see in this man.  Before he get’s into the ring the spectacle has already started, the crowd is already electric with anticipation and it is the matador’s job to take charge of the bull’s final passes.  He has to be on his toes and posses the agility of a feline, he has to use brains before brawn, he has to know when to flash red and instigate a charge, and he has to know when to move and allow the bull’s momentum to offer him a clear shot with his blade that will make the beast’s vulnerable spot his undoing. 
 
After a day of the same tired talking points, his closing statement did exactly that, and more. The look on John Cantor’s face when President Obama, Mr. Hope himself, actually mouthed the words that a compromise may not be able to be reached, you finally saw the dumbfounding realization wash over him that they had blown a perfect opportunity to affect the change they want by choosing theatrics over substance, by distancing themselves from opportunity instead of embracing it.  It was almost as priceless as watching Obama completely baffle John McCain by agreeing with him flat out on the point he was trying to make and turning him into a stuttering mess.
 
In 21st century America, forums like this have got to be made common practice. As everyday Americans rehash Thursday’s events with conversations around the water cooler and kitchen tables, as people ask themselves if they want to put their boat in a “pool” or a lake, as they grapple with the logic presented by both sides and make an educated determination about what is truly best for themselves, I would be stupefied if there is not substantial movement in the polls, now that a lot of the shadowy mystery has been dragged into the light.  If I’m wrong, I’ll grin and bear it, but if I’m right, I will be delighted and filled with a newfound confidence that we really can take our government back if the doors and windows are wide open for all of us to peer in on the proceedings that decide our future. 
 
If these legislators want to keep saying that America rejects this, or embraces that, at least have the common decency to let us see what’s actually behind door number one and door number two.  I think America is quickly getting sick and tired of making every decision based on whether it is stamped with an R or a D.
 
Everyone agreed that health care must be reformed.  Everyone agreed that our current trajectory is unsustainable.  Now that America finally had a chance to hear everyone’s positions loud and clear, I am confident that we will have a law in place by April and I really do hope that Republicans in Congress can look past their own nose and work across the aisle to represent their constituencies and do their very best to get more of their ideas implemented before they are simply left out of the discussion altogether as Democrats have been 16 out of the 22 times a reconciliation vote has been used in our recent history. 
 
If the majority was really against the bill on the table, as every Republican on Thursday professed, wouldn’t it be President John McCain calling the shots? Obama wasn’t miming his intentions to overhaul the system when stadiums were filled with the hopeful and the entire world tuned in for 2 years of tire kicking and checking under the hood.  And I hope that everyone agrees with the mathematical truth that 51% still constitutes a majority.
 
President Obama will not wait to bring desperately needed relief to struggling Americans because time will not stop for anyone. This moment is too important, this moment decides the future, this moment is in our hands.  It’s time to do the right thing.