BecomingRonaldReagan

“Now, in our country under our free enterprise system, we have seen medicine reach the greatest heights that it has in any country in the world,” we hear. “Today, the relationship between patient and doctor in this country is something to be envied any place. The privacy, the care that is given to a person, the right to choose a doctor, the right to go from one doctor to another.”

Maybe that was true in 1961, pre-managed care, as Ronald Reagan said in one of his more dubious enterprises in public life. Then, though, much medical care was available only to the best-off families. And today, just as in those days, the cry of “socialized medicine” comes straight from the headlines.

In “Becoming Ronald Reagan: The Rise of a Conservative Icon,” due out on Oct. 1 from Potomac Books of the University of Nebraska Press, LSU professor and historian Bob Mann chronicles what was a state-of-the-art campaign, pre-Facebook.

A front group, Women Help American Medicine, was formed by the American Medical Association. It sponsored what Mann calls an effective clandestine campaign to flood Congress with personal letters opposing legislation for what would become Medicare.

Reagan’s speech was recorded on vinyl for Operation Coffeecup, where doctors’ wives had their friends over to hear the overheated rhetoric delivered in the actor’s velvet tone. The idea worked, as thousands of seemingly personal letters written then and there at the coffee klatches — “Don’t accept an ‘I’ll do it tomorrow’ reply,” organizers were told — flooded mailboxes on Capitol Hill.

Participants were told that Reagan volunteered to do the talk — as Mann writes, typical of the dozens he gave every year around the country — out of conviction. Undisclosed was that Nancy Reagan’s father was a wealthy and nationally prominent surgeon who fiercely opposed “socialized medicine.”

As so often with Reagan, the WHAM speech began with an anecdote: “Back in 1927, an American socialist, Norman Thomas, six-time candidate for president on the Socialist Party ticket, said the American people would never vote for socialism. But he said under the name of liberalism the American people will adopt every fragment of the socialist program.”

Mann probably got tired of writing this or similar observations of Reagan’s early public life: “No such quote by Thomas has been discovered.”

“One of the traditional methods of imposing statism or socialism on people has been by way of medicine,” Reagan said. He made frightening predictions of doctors being told where and how much to work.

“From here it is a short step to all the rest of socialism, to determining his pay and pretty soon your son won’t decide when he’s in school, where he will go or what they will do for a living,” Reagan said. “He will wait for the government to tell him where to go to work and what he will do.”

A ringing call to preserve the liberties of Americans closed the speech. At least some doctors took the records and played the speech over and over, in their waiting rooms.

The cry against “socialized medicine” was of course only part of the standard Reagan speech which was reported and went almost unquestioned in many newspapers around the country. “Beguiled by Reagan’s charm and sunny disposition, as well as his authority and confidence, the journalists covering him wrote glowing stories about his visits and repeated his many assertions,” Mann writes.

Perhaps this seems innocent now. But then, as columnist Drew Pearson revealed in June 1961, Operation Coffeecup was a lavishly funded special-interest campaign aimed at congressmen. “What they don’t know, of course, is that Ron Reagan is behind the mail; also that the American Medical Association is paying for it.”

Mann’s book details Reagan’s ventures in politics before he ran for governor of California, so the passage of Medicare — enabled by the Lyndon B. Johnson landslide of November 1964 — is outside the scope of the volume. But Operation Coffeecup is a telling example not only of how political fights are waged, but of the power of interests to color a debate, generating “AstroTurf,” or synthetic grassroots opinion.

Now that Medicare is a staple of American life, its being the handmaiden of Communism and tyranny won’t be as powerful an argument. But whenever one hears latter-day Reagans peddling stories of people dying in Canada under “socialized medicine,” perhaps Operation Coffeecup should come to mind.

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Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.