Is the Past Prologue?

The pedigree of Alan Simpson

Before too many weeks pass, I want to comment on an illuminating Gray Matters column by Saul Friedman, an old hand at writing about issues of social justice, Medicare, and Social Security. Full disclosure here: Friedman taught me my first lessons in public interest journalism when I was a cub reporter at the Detroit Free Press and he covered Washington for the paper. For many years, Friedman wrote his column for Newsday; now it appears on the Web site As Time Goes By.

Friedman argued that the President, “in his obsessive reaching across the political aisle, may have gone a stretch too far” when he picked former Wyoming senator Alan Simpson as co-chair of his new deficit reduction commission. Yes, it may recommend drastic changes in Social Security and Medicare. Simpson gave an interview on the NewsHour after his appointment, saying:

You have two choices…you either raise the payroll tax or decrease the benefits or start affluence testing. The rest of it is B.S. This country is gonna go to the bow-wows unless we deal with entitlements, Social Security, and Medicare.

Friedman told his readers that Social Security’s long-term fiscal problem “has nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with Social Security’s role in the deficit” and “helps finance the deficit by loaning the treasury money for which it earns interest (about $700 million a year.)” Then he gave some background on Simpson that went unnoticed by much of the media when the ex-senator’s appointment was announced. Friedman pointed out that until Simpson left the Senate in 1997, he had been one of its harshest critics of Social Security and Medicare, and had waging war on the AARP, a vocal supporter of both programs. He reminded me and his readers what I had written about Simpson years ago in my book Slanting the Story; the Forces that Shape the News.

Simpson had been a long-time foe of AARP, disagreeing with its positions not only on Social Security and Medicare, but also on financing long-term care. The son of a Wyoming governor, he had to pay out of his own pocket to finance his parents’ care in old age, and thought everyone else ought to do the same. Simpson was the powerful chair of the Senate Finance Committee’s subcommittee on Social Security and Family Policy. One day, as he talked to reporters in the Capitol corridor, he pumped his arms and danced a little jig. “I’m a chairman. I can have hearings,” he boasted. As chairman, he promoted points made by the conservative Capitol Research Center, one of the then newly-formed conservative think tanks that favored privatizing Social Security and Medicare.

He held hearings on AARP’s finances. Friedman points out that not long afterward, AARP, which had fought against privatizing Social Security and Medicare, had a new head, Republican public relations executive William Novelli, who later offered the AARP’s support for the prescription drug program. The drug benefit delivered millions of new customers to private insurance companies, and gave huge subsidies to insurers selling Medicare Advantage plans—a step some experts believe put Medicare on a path toward privatization. Giving zillions of new customers to private insurance companies sounds like what’s going to happen under health reform, no?

Simpson’s antics and colorful language have cache with the press, and he will likely be a staple on MSM shows in the months to come. He makes for good TV. On CNBC, Simpson recently predicted:

It’ll be a bloodbath. Let me tell you, everything that Bush and Clinton or Obama have suggested with regard to Social Security doesn’t affect anyone over sixty, and who are the people howling and bitching the most? The people over sixty. This makes no sense. You’ve got to scrub out [of] the equation the AARP, the Committee for the Preservation of Social Security and Medicare, the Gray Panthers, the Pink Panther, the whatever. Those people are lying when everything that was proposed last year, year before didn’t affect any over fifty-five.

Simpson said what he’s heard so far doesn’t affect anyone over sixty. Those people, he added (I guess he means the AARP and the Pink Panther), “don’t care a whit about their grandchildren…not a whit.”

This all suggests more stories to come. But for now, just some context about Simpson’s pedigree will do. I know: space is tight; time is limited; attention spans are short. But it is possible to give audiences a clue or two about whose voices are being heard, and what we might expect from a commission as important as the one he co-chairs.

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.