Arnold Bennett, Democratic consultant and health-care strategist for President Clinton, dies

Arnold Bennett, 71, a Democratic consultant and grass-roots organizer who played a key role in shaping strategy for President Bill Clinton’s unsuccessful campaign for nationwide health insurance coverage, died Oct. 26 at George Washington University Hospital.

He died after an apparent heart attack, said his wife, Nancy Bennett.

Mr. Bennett began his career in politics in New York working as a campaign staffer for Shirley Chisholm in 1968, when she became the first black woman elected to Congress. During the 1970s, Mr. Bennett had a consulting firm in Washington whose clients included Democratic party leaders such as George S. McGovern, Walter F. Mondale and Lloyd M. Bentsen.

Mr. Bennett became media director for the liberal-leaning lobbying group Families USA in the mid-1980s. After Clinton was elected to the White House in 1992, Mr. Bennett frequently met with the president in the Oval Office and created talking points for the administration to promote.

Instead of focusing on how the health-care bill would cover every American, the White House should emphasize how Clinton’s plan would ensure that no family would lose their insurance, Mr. Bennett said.

“When you talk about universal coverage, people start to worry about paying for someone else,” Mr. Bennett told the New York Times in 1994. “When you talk about losing insurance it sounds like something that will protect them.”

Much of Mr. Bennett’s work involved corralling support for the health-care measure. In the garden of public opinion, he was a master of knowing which seeds would grow.

At Families USA, Mr. Bennett helped stock what news reports called a “misery bank” of stories involving people and their insurance companies. Families USA provided news outlets and talk shows, including Oprah Winfrey’s, with cases from its health-care archive.

One story involved an 8-year-old girl from St. Louis named Jennifer who was born with a hole in her heart. In a letter, she wrote that she lost coverage because “insurance don’t want to mess with me.”

Mr. Bennett also helped organize a national bus tour, which was dubbed the “Health Security Express.”

Along the way, “reform riders” collected thousands of handwritten letters to deliver to members of Congress at the end of the trip. At several stops, Clinton and Vice President Al Gore joined the cavalcade to speak at events.

The health-care bill was a polarizing issue that did not neatly divide on party lines. Opponents of the measure spent tens of millions of dollars in television advertisements, including one highly effective piece featuring a fictional middle-class couple, Harry and Louise, who grumble about how the Clinton plan would allow bureaucrats to dictate insurance coverage.

Even though the Democrats controlled the House and the Senate, legislation for Clinton’s health-care plan fizzled before voting occurred.

Arnold Bennett was born April 12, 1940, in New York. After attending Cornell University and the New School for Social Research, Mr. Bennett started his work in politics.

Through his later work in making political advertisements, he helped produce several documentaries, including “Books Under Fire” (1982), about censorship.

Mr. Bennett left Families USA in 1996 and moved to Newfoundland, Canada. He became a Canadian citizen in 2004, inspired by the country’s universal health-care system.

Survivors include his wife of 47 years, Nancy Derrickson Bennett of Newfoundland; two sons, Daniel Bennett of Washington and Jeremiah Bennett of Toronto; a brother, Lawrence Bennett of Bethesda; and two granddaughters.

T. Rees Shapiro is an education reporter.
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