'This City Is Nothing Like Planet Earth'

By Dave Barry
Sunday, August 14, 1994

National health care policy is without question the most important issue -- as measured in total inches of newspaper stories that you, personally, have not read -- to face this nation since ... gosh, I would have to say since NAFTA .

For more than a year now, the Clinton administration, Congress and scores of special-interest groups have debated the health care issue with such intense passion that their photocopying machines routinely burst into flames. This debate, although bitter at times, has resulted in a broad national consensus on two fundamental conclusions:

1. The United States has the best system of health care in the world.

2. Something needs to be done about this.

But exactly what will the "something" be? That is what is being decided right now here in Washington. Even as you read these words, our elected leaders are making decisions that will have a profound impact on both the scope and the substance of the press releases that they will put out tomorrow. Also they might eventually pass some kind of law.

In an effort to help you better understand this issue, The Washington Post stupidly flew me into Washington in late June. The first thing I did was obtain an official press credential to wear around my neck. In Washington, everybody who matters, including statuary, is wearing some kind of credential. You need a credential to distinguish yourself from members of the general tourist public, who, in our nation's capital, have the status of mildew. They have no clue as to what is going on. They wander obliviously in herds, gaping at various historic domes, statues, pillars and floors while some official guide tells them amazing facts ("The Lincoln statue's nose alone weighs as much as a Mazda Miata!").

Whereas if you wear a press credential, you're a player, an insider, a person who can go into certain humongous federal buildings, walk past the security personnel and lurk around in certain corridors, near certain rooms where policy is being made. That's what the insiders manufacture here: policy. By the ton. They make enough policy to cover virtually every activity of every person in the country, with plenty left over for export abroad. The closer you can get to the policy making, the more important you are.

Washington people are keenly interested in knowing everybody's importance level. I learned this the first time I came here, back in 1967, when I was a college student working as a summer intern at a magazine called Congressional Quarterly. I was unprepared for the Washington social environment. I came from the all-male-college environment, where a person's standing in the community was judged on the basis of such factors as:

-- Was he basically a good guy?

-- Would he let you borrow his car?

-- Would he still be basically a good guy if you or your date threw up in his car?

But when I got to Washington that summer, I immediately discovered that, even among young people, your good-guy quotient did not mean squat. What mattered was your access to power, your proximity to policy. If your status was adequate, people would talk to you, at least until somebody more important came along; if you were just some civilian schlub visiting from out of town, people would drop you like used dental floss. As a lowly intern, I was right on the edge of schlubdom, so socially it was a tense summer for me, and I was glad to get back to college, where you could fit right in at a party merely by lying face down on the floor and listening to the same side of a Moby Grape album 67 consecutive times, not that I'm saying I ever inhaled.

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© 1994 The Washington Post Company