Throughout the 2008 presidential campaign and again during the bruising battle for health insurance reform, one of Barack Obama’s oft-told anecdotes was of his dying mother’s struggle with insurance in the final months of her life.
It was a story that came up in almost every speech and interview that touched on health care over the years. “I remember in the last month of her life, she wasn't thinking about how to get well, she wasn't thinking about coming to terms with her own mortality, she was thinking about whether or not insurance was going to cover the medical bills and whether our family would be bankrupt as a consequence," he said in a 2007 interview. ”My mother, when she got sick with ovarian cancer, she had just gotten a new job, and the insurance company was saying, ‘Well, maybe this is a pre-existing condition, so maybe we don't have to pay your medical bills,’” he told a Pennsylvania crowd in 2008. “So I know what it's like to see a loved one suffer not just because they're sick, but because of a broken health care system. This is personal for me.” He told the American Medical Association in 2009 that he remembered “watching . . . as she fought cancer in her final days, spending time worrying whether her insurer would claim her illness was a pre-existing condition.”
The portrait of President Obama as a regular guy, forced like so many regular Americans to stand helplessly by while a suffering loved one uses their ebbing strength to fight with heartless, profit-obsessed medical insurance companies was immensely appealing, particularly to reporters. It was just one of those stories that was “as journalists like to say, 'too good to check,'” says The Atlantic’s Megan McArdle.
But, recently, someone checked. During the course of her research for A Singular Woman: The Untold Story of Barack Obama's Mother, New York Times political reporter Janny Scott found that President Obama’s story was sort of true, if you stood in at a certain angle and squinted a little.
When Ann Dunham was diagnosed with uterine and ovarian cancer in January 1995, her medical insurance carrier covered her treatment without argument, even covering her medical travel expenses from Indonesia to Hawaii, and later from Hawaii to New York, where she sought treatment at Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. She was left to pay the deductibles and those items not covered by her policy, totalling a few hundred dollars a month in out-of-pocket expense.
To defray the cost, Dunham put in a claim with for a disability insurance policy she had through her employers. Correspondence given to Scott by friends of Dunham show that it was her disability carrier, Cigna, that denied the claim on the basis of a pre-existing condition, after reviewers found a note in an old medical file that suggested she might have uterine cancer. Dunham argued that testing at the time had found no sign of the disease. She later requested a review, directing them to her “son and attorney, Barack Obama,” but it’s not clear if it was completed before her death in November 1995 at the age of 52.
After repeated request, the New York Times this week finally got the White House to make a statement on the story. “We have not reviewed the letters or other material on which the author bases her account,” said spokesperson Nicholas Papas. “The president has told this story based on his recollection of events that took place more than 15 years ago.” The fundamentals of the President’s account, Papas went on to say, were accurate. The subtext was clear: the President never said it was a medical insurance dispute, so if people chose to interpret it that way, it's hardly his fault.
The RedState/TownHall crowd is feasting on this Obama “lie.” And why wouldn’t they? If Bill Clinton was an all-you-can-eat buffet of half-truths and scandals, Saint Barack of Chicago has been nothing but thin gruel all the way. While it might be fun to mock Michelle Obama’s recent 1,700-calorie lunch, it’s going to take more than Shake-Shack-gate to get discouraged Republicans to the polls in 2012. With no big scandal on the horizon, all they can hope for is a drip-drip-drip of negative stories that erode the Obama mystique among conservative-leaning independents.
What’s interesting is not that this any kind of actual news—the President didn’t so much lie as conveniently shade a personal anecdote for maximum impact and, let’s face it, no matter how potent the pathos of the Insurance Claim, we still ended up with a health care deal that kept a fundamentally flawed insurance system fundamentally intact—but that the mainstream press has been devoting so much time to it. From the New York Times, it spread to CBS, ABC, the Huffington Post, The Atlantic, USA Today, the Washington Post…none of them bastions of anti-Obama sentiment.
It’s the clearest sign yet that coverage of the 2012 presidential race is going to be an entirely different critter than 2008. Back then, reporting on President Obama’s personal history was soft-focus Sunday feature fare; there was no particularly interest in digging below the surface to check the veracity of any given personal anecdote. With Obama appearing less and less a transformational leader and more and more a standard-issue politician, he’s inevitably going to face a higher level of scrutiny. The Era of Too Good To Check has come to an end.
Photo courtesy Obama.net