In 1950, a candidate for Congress in Florida named George Smathers reportedly gave speeches to rural, uneducated voters and accused his incumbent opponent, Claude Pepper, of being "a known extrovert" who practiced "celibacy" before marriage, practiced "nepotism" with his sister-in-law, "matriculated" with women in college and had a sister who was "a thespian" and brother who was "a practicing homo sapien."
In the world of political campaigns, the story is legendary. In truth, what we know today is that Smathers crushed Pepper in that election. What we don't know for sure is what role those speeches played, if any, in his win over the popular incumbent.
Sadly, I'm inclined to think those cynical words, which both insulted and pandered to an electorate at the same time, did influence the outcome of that race. And I believe that for the simple reason that those same cynical techniques remain in practice today.
If you don't believe me, just listen to what is being said about Medicare in the current presidential race.
The president and his defenders in Congress say, "Our opponents want to change Medicare as we know it," as if that were some unspeakable evil rather than what it really is - the most courageous political act in a generation.
And when the president and his supporters say those things with just the right amount of mocking and disdain in their voices, and with near-total impunity from people who know better, they make their opponents sound like people who want to push old ladies in wheelchairs off a cliff. (And, in fact, they made just such a television commercial.)
Just as Smathers presumed that his audience didn't know or appreciate the value of "matriculating in college," the president and his surrogates are counting on the American people, particularly the elderly, to think that changing Medicare "as we know it" is some unimaginable horror.
How else can you explain our president saying he's going to protect Medicare "as we know it" when the government's own accountants say Medicare is unfunded to the tune of $38 trillion and will be broke sometime in the next 10 to 15 years?
I realize that unless you are a government accountant, most people can't comprehend a trillion dollars. Well, to put it in perspective, the Federal Reserve has estimated the entire net worth of the nation at about $51 trillion.
Does anyone seriously think the government should confiscate 75 percent of the wealth of the nation to pay for Medicare? I don't think so.
And that is why it is a mathematical impossibility to keep Medicare "as we know it."
In truth, every single responsible person who has looked at this challenge has said we have to raise the age of eligibility, there has to be some form of "means testing" (put another way, Medicare can't keep paying for the health care of every senior citizen in the country, including Warren Buffett), and everyone will have to take some additional responsibility for their health care, including paying more and living healthier lives. And even then, the numbers still don't balance out.
Never heard that before? Then you have not been listening to Congressman Paul Ryan, the only honest person in Washington when it comes to talking straight about Medicare and its challenges.
What Ryan has said is that we need to act now to make some realistic changes to Medicare that will prevent imminent bankruptcy and keep the benefit largely intact for the next generation. He doesn't propose to end Medicare or even make real cuts. He's simply proposed a way to slow its growth - and at that, only for people who are younger than 55. Ryan proposes to change nothing for people 55 or older.
And for his political courage, the president mocks and maligns Ryan with utterly incredulous statements.
You also will hear the president say, with utter scorn, that Ryan wants to turn Medicare into a "voucher program." Sound shocking? It shouldn't for the simple reason that 10 million seniors already use their Medicare benefits today to purchase private health insurance known as Medicare Advantage - and they love it. And the reason they love it is because it lets them use their benefits to shop for the coverage that suits them best - rather than participating in the government's one-size-fits-all approach.
In truth, Ryan's proposal does nothing more than preserve the options that currently exist - but the president obviously thinks most voters are too stupid to know that.
The president might as well accuse Ryan of practicing "veracity" and of being a "scrupulous budgeter" who is openly "guileless" in his writings and speeches about the fiscal problems of Medicare.
It certainly wouldn't be any more contemptible than telling people we can keep Medicare "as we know it."