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'This City Is Nothing Like Planet Earth'
An Outsider's Guide to Washington

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.

AS FAR AS I CAN TELL, Washington has not changed in the status-consciousness department, so I felt good when I got my press credential. My first move, in cracking the health care story, was to go to the White House in an effort to determine the Clinton administration position.

I found the White House to be in a state of disarray. People were throwing furniture out the windows, setting fires in the Lincoln bedroom, spray-painting " EAT ME" on the portrait of Dwight Eisenhower, playing lawn darts in the Oval Office, giving noogies to key foreign leaders and hurling moons at the Capitol.

Okay, perhaps I am exaggerating here. But the White House IS in disarray. I know this because Bob Woodward says so in The Agenda, the best-selling book he wrote based on interviews with dozens of White House insiders, who gave Woodward some unbelievable dirt on the Clinton administration. Woodward's secret is that he has a sad, mopey face; when he interviews high-level government officials, they feel sorry for him and try to make him feel better by feeding him inside information.

"Cheer up, Bob!" they say. "We're in severe disarray here! We can't tie our own shoes without the help of military aides! Write that down for your book!" Or: "Bob! You want some color photographs of David Gergen naked with Ruth Bader Ginsburg?"

I have to admit that I did not receive any inside information from high-level officials while I was at the White House (unless you count what President Clinton said privately to me, which I will analyze in detail later). I spent most of my day hanging around in the White House press area, which was definitely in disarray, to the point of being, let's not mince words, a dump.

The press is not famous for neatness. Walk into the newsroom of any major newspaper, and you will find dozens of journalists who are wearing clothing ensembles from Mister Norm's House of Brownish Stains and who appear to style their hair with the aid of salad dressing, and they will be surrounded by vast yellowing mounds of "notes" consisting of thousands of pieces of paper, upon each of which is scrawled a telephone number and the name of a News Source -- say, a medium-level agriculture official from the Carter administration whom the journalist attempted to reach in 1978 for a story regarding soybeans and who never called back (they never do). The journalist, however, is not about to throw away this or any other note, because in the news game you never know when you might need a soybean contact. My point is that even when journalists have plenty of space, they tend to turn it into landfill. And in the White House press area, they have virtually no space. They're all jammed together, dozens of them, in a few small, dingy rooms strewn with discarded newspapers and press releases; the area has the ambiance of a bus station, but with worse toilet facilities. The reporters are stuck here hour after hour, day after day, month after month, waiting for a White House press person to reveal some actual news, which virtually never happens, because the White House press persons hate the press, and vice versa.

This hostility has always existed, of course, but it's especially intense now. The Clinton administration feels that the press has been extremely unfair, always focusing on negative stories, such as the allegation by Paula Jones that she was sexually harassed by Bill Clinton, while ignoring the positive stories, such as all the women -- and there are literally dozens of them -- who have NOT alleged that Bill Clinton sexually harassed them, as of yet.

For its part, the press hates the Clinton administration because it's whiny and never wants to talk about anything except health care, which the press has been sick of since the 1992 New Hampshire primary.

ON THE MONDAY MORNING when I arrived in the White House press area, the mood was not perky. The reporters were mostly sitting around, reading newspapers and watching Wimbledon tennis, everybody looking bored and droopy. (The lone exception was NBC-TV White House correspondent Andrea Mitchell, who always looks crisp and professional, in the sense of having a hairstyle that you could crack walnuts on; and who is constantly striding purposefully through the room, as though she just got a tip that Jimmy Hoffa is buried in the Rose Garden.)

It looked to be a slow news day at the White House. The major event planned was a ceremony in which President Clinton was going to meet with officials from 76 medical schools, who, according to a White House press release, were going to "present him with a signed statement expressing their support for universal health care coverage."

Coverage is a critical issue in the health care debate. Without some kind of insurance, most people cannot afford modern health care, which is extremely expensive, because when you're a hospital patient, you're not merely paying people to stick big needles into your arm and bring you food made from processed shirt cardboard and make you walk around in an absurd garment with your butt hanging out. You are also paying to have medical school officials travel to Washington from all over the United States merely to hand President Clinton a piece of paper saying they agree with him.

But that is the price you pay for the best health care system in the world. That is why, when President Clinton delivered his State of the Union speech, he made a dramatic threat: Holding up a fountain pen, he told the members of Congress that if they passed a health care bill that did not include universal coverage, "you will force me to take this pen, veto the legislation, and we'll come right back here and start all over again."

The rigidity of the Clinton position raises some serious legislative questions. The major one, of course, is: What if he loses that pen? Could he legally use another one? Also, if we have universal coverage, who's going to pay for it? The employers? The individual workers? Or should the taxpayers pay?

To me, the answer is obvious: Donald Trump should pay. For everybody. And if he doesn't have enough money, then we should get the rest from Macaulay Culkin, Snoop Doggy Dogg, whoever is responsible for the Home Shopping Network and -- if they even threaten to get into the Super Bowl again -- the Buffalo Bills. I can come up with plenty more names if necessary.

But getting back to universal coverage: The presentation of the signed statement from the medical school officials took place in the historic White House Room Full of Ugly Gold Chairs. The press was herded into a roped-off area at the appointed time by some official White House staff Whippersnappers, who are employed by the administration to assist the press solely because their extreme youthfulness really ticks the press off.

Once we were all in place, it was time for: nothing. We just stood there in our little area, patrolled by Whipper-snappers lest we venture outside our ropes, as minute after minute ticked slowly by. Veteran White House observers told me that the Clinton schedule is subject to constant unexplained delays, apparently designed to ensure that the press will be as hostile as possible when the news event actually occurs. As one reporter put it: "If we have to stand here much longer, I'm going to need health care reform for my back."

EVENTUALLY, by twos and threes, the medical school officials started drifting in. Finally, 40 minutes behind schedule, President and Mrs. Clinton came in and stood on a raised platform. A line of medical school people stood behind them, with their hands folded over their private regions, like soccer players waiting for a penalty kick.

Mrs. Clinton gave a brief statement, her main points being that (1) she is in favor of universal coverage, and (2) she is the smartest person in the world (this second point was implied). Then President Clinton stated that he too was in favor of universal coverage; his implicit message was that, sure, he has made a few mistakes, but he is basically a good person who genuinely wants to help people even though he knows that this whole news event, like everything else he does, is going to get twisted around in a viciously negative manner by the cynical press and the loon right, headed by Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell, a pair of beady-eyed, Moon-Pie-faced blowhards with the moral stature of head lice.

The medical school officials gave the Clintons a hearty round of applause. All in all, the ceremony was a highly effective means of drawing the public's attention to the importance of universal coverage, except that (1) the press, having heard all this about 63,000 times, didn't plan to say much about it to the public; and (2) whatever the press did say about universal coverage, the public was pretty much going to ignore it, unless it had an O.J. Simpson angle.

After the ceremony I walked within two feet of Donna Shalala, a member of the Clinton Cabinet. I tried hard to think of a probing journalism question to ask her, but the only one I could think of was, "Exactly which department are you secretary of, anyway?" So I just kept walking. I did speak briefly to CNN White House correspondent Wolf Blitzer, with whom I had the following actual exchange:

ME : I've seen you on TV.

WOLF BLITZER : You have cable?

ME : Yes.

WOLF BLITZER : Good. We need people to have cable.

I agree with Wolf's position on this, and I hope it is incorporated into whatever health care plan is ultimately passed.

Out in front of the White House, the medical school officials had gathered so the press could interview them about health care. I wound up talking to Robert Fore, an associate dean at the Mercer University School of Medicine in Macon, Ga. He had been busy all morning talking about health care at the White House, so I filled him in on recent developments in the O.J. Simpson case, which led us to a discussion of football. He is a MAJOR fan of the Georgia Bulldogs. He told me about one time, after the Bulldogs beat Florida in a big game, when he became so excited, outside the stadium, that he -- and I am NOT saying it was his fault -- got hit by a bus.

"I woke up strapped down inside an ambulance," he said.

Fore's wife had no idea where he was. She was worried to death.

"What got me," he said, "was that instead of calling the hospitals first, she called the jail."

Eventually she was able to track him down in an emergency ward, and he came out fine, thanks to the best system of health care in the world. But it is still vitally important that we think up a national policy about it, which is why, even though at that point I desperately wanted to go to a bar and watch the O.J. Simpson hearings like everybody else, I went back into the White House press area to attend the daily press briefing, starring Dee Dee Myers.

Myers is the White House press secretary, which means her primary responsibility in the briefing is to never reveal anything remotely newsworthy to the press. The press, for its part, is responsible for repeatedly badgering Myers with questions that she has already refused to answer, until the hostility level in the room reaches the point where the smoke detectors go off. It's a ritualistic, decades-old dispute carried on by whoever happens to be the White House press secretary and whoever happens to be in the press corps. It reminds you of an elderly married couple who are still arguing about a remark one of them made at a cocktail party in 1953.

The major topic of discussion at the press briefing was -- brace yourself -- health care. Specifically, the press wanted to know what "universal coverage" means. Myers said it means coverage for every American. This did not satisfy the press, which immediately demanded to know what "every American" means. Clearly this discussion had gone on before, because Myers immediately became a little testy and said, "I am not going to be drawn into a debate about numbers." This was followed by a lengthy effort on the part of the press to draw her into a debate about numbers, involving all kinds of hypothetical questions ("Dee Dee, IF the Congress passes a health care bill covering 96 percent of all Americans, and IF it has a triggering mechanism mandating total coverage by the year 2002 contingent on certain conditions, and IF Train A leaves Cody, Wyoming, traveling east at 47 miles per hour ...").

But Myers did not budge. I liked her. I sensed that, underneath her tough-gal exterior, she's a fun person, the kind of person you could go to a bar and have a few beers with and maybe, late at night, if you got lucky, draw into a debate about numbers.

Eventually the reporters gave up on defining "every American" and asked about the dollar. Myers, however, was not going to be tricked into saying anything about that either.

"All comment on the dollar will be coming out of the Treasury Department," she said. This irritated the reporters. One of them told me, angrily, that the Treasury Department was also refusing to say anything about the dollar. I feigned disgust, although the embarrassing truth was that up to that moment I had not realized that there was anything going on with the dollar. There had been no mention of it in the O.J. Simpson hearings.

This was followed by some more testy questioning about the meaning of "every American," which in turn was followed by a sequence of questions from various reporters on President Clinton's recent trips to Camp David. Here, to the best of my ability to reconstruct it from my hastily scribbled notes, is the exchange:

VOICE : What is he doing up there? Can you tell us?

ANOTHER VOICE : Does he fish?

YET ANOTHER VOICE : Has he been doing any fishing?

MYERS : He has not been doing any fishing to my knowledge.

VOICE : Does he smoke?

MYERS : He has been known to chew on one.

VOICE : But he doesn't inhale!

(Laughter.)

MYERS : So many creative minds in such a little room.

As the press conference was winding down, an elderly woman shuffled into the room, bent way over forward, carrying a McDonald's bag. I later learned that she has been a credentialed White House journalist for many years, although nobody is sure what news organization she's supposed to be reporting for. She shuffled over to where I was sitting.

"Could you get up so I can eat my lunch?" she said.

I got up. She sat down and started eating a hamburger. It occurred to me that she was getting more out of this press briefing than any of the other journalists. In fact, it was early afternoon, and the major White House news flash of the day was that President Clinton had endorsed his own health care plan. The hamburger smelled good. I went to lunch.

WHEN I RETURNED, about an hour later, the press corps was throbbing with excitement: An actual news event was occurring. President Clinton was about to announce that he had replaced White House Chief of Staff Thomas F. "Mack" McLarty with Office of Management and Budget Director Leon E. Panetta. McLarty was going to get a brand-new White House job invented just for him, and Alice M. Rivlin was going to replace Panetta at OMB. Not only THAT , but David R. Gergen, the "can-do" Republican who had been brought in last year to straighten out the White House, was going to shift over to the State Department and help straighten out the entire world.

I personally didn't see this as exciting news, but in the White House press area it resulted in widespread loss of bladder control. A Major White House Staff Shake-Up! You cannot imagine the excitement. A few minutes before the official announcement was to be made, Wolf Blitzer bustled past me.

"This is big," he said. "This is BIG ."

Within seconds Blitzer was on TV, instantly analyzing this news development with the help of a couple of those guys -- I'm pretty sure one of them was Zbigniew Brzezinski -- who apparently just hang around the CNN studios 24 hours a day in case anybody needs anything analyzed.

In the press area, those of us journalists who were not permitted to witness this event personally in the Oval Office gathered around TV monitors to watch President Clinton make the announcement.

"Today," said the president, "I am replacing Mack McLarty, because he really screwed up."

Ha ha! I am of course joking. Everybody knew that McLarty DID screw up, but it would have been a hideous violation of Washington ethical standards to tell the truth in a situation like that. President Clinton stressed that McLarty was being bounced because he was without question the best White House chief of staff in the history of the republic. In accordance with an old Washington maxim -- "No statement, no matter how ridiculous, should ever be left unrepeated" -- Panetta, Rivlin and Gergen also pointed out what an astounding success McLarty was.

This love fest was immediately stomped on by members of the cynical press, who basically demanded that President Clinton blame somebody for something. He got all hurt and pouty, the way he does, and refused to do this. But the press came away happy anyway, because now, instead of having to write yet another health care story that nobody outside of Washington would read, they could write a Major White House Staff Shake-Up story that nobody outside of Washington would read.

(Here is how obsessed Washington is with this type of thing: Two days after the Big Shake-Up, The Post ran a story about the fact that there had been "speculation" that Dee Dee Myers's job might be in jeopardy because Panetta, appearing on CNN's "Larry King Live," had failed to praise Myers. So in response to this speculation, Panetta had to announce that he thought Myers was "doing a great job," which of course could really have meant that he thought she was a blundering idiot. This city is nothing like the Planet Earth.)

SO IT TURNED OUT to be a big news day at the White House. For me, however, the most exciting event of the day was yet to come: This was watching President Clinton take off from the White House lawn in a helicopter. He was flying to Andrews Air Force Base, where he'd board Air Force One and fly to New York City, where he was going to eat dinner with people who had given large sums of money to the Democrats because they happen to agree ideologically with the Democrats and not because they expect to have any more access to the federal government than an ordinary taxpaying dirtball such as yourself.

The helicopter liftoff ceremony was way more elaborate and impressive than your first wedding. Hundreds of people had gathered behind the White House, including a large crowd of summer government interns, who had their picture taken with the president and cheered wildly when he boarded the helicopter. This is the cool part of being president: You can get serious adulation for performing a simple act, for managing to maneuver through the helicopter doorway rather than, say, walking face-first into the fuselage.

Before he left, President Clinton worked his way along the crowd, shaking everybody's hand in a sincere manner. I was standing at the edge of the press clot, and I suddenly realized that the president had mistaken me for a member of the human race, as opposed to the press corps, and was going to shake my hand. This was probably the only chance I'd ever get to talk to him. I frantically tried to think of a good question to ask, but the only one that came to mind was, "Exactly which department is Donna Shalala secretary of, anyway?"

And then it was too late: He was right in front of me. He stuck out his hand, and I stuck out mine, and we shook; as we did, he looked me right in the eyes -- his eyes were kind of bloodshot -- and he said, very sincerely, and this is a quote: "Hi."

"Hi," I replied. I am known for my quickness of wit.

With that, the president moved off to shake more hands, and I, after watching the helicopter take off, left the White House compound. I did, however, do some additional research in the form of calling up a fellow I know named Stephen Hess. Stephen really is a fellow. He is in fact a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a prestigious Washington think tank where people sit around and think during working hours. Stephen mainly thinks about the presidency, and is constantly being quoted as an expert in newspapers and magazines.

"Stephen," I said, "I need you to analyze something that President Clinton said."

"Okay," he said. "What?"

" 'Hi,' " I said.

" 'Hi'?" he asked.

" 'Hi,' " I said. "His eyes were kind of bloodshot."

"I see," said Stephen, thinking. "Let me ask you this: Did the president at any time explain to you his four-point program to prevent nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula?"

"No," I said.

"Did he give you his five-point plan for solving the Haitian refugee crisis?"

"No."

"Did he give you his seven-point plan for bringing peace to Bosnia?"

"No."

"Ah- HAH ," said Stephen. "That clearly means he does not HAVE a four-point program for Korea, a five-point plan for Haiti OR a seven-point plan for Bosnia."

"My God," I said. "You're right."

"The man is in trouble," said Stephen.

Speaking of which, the next day the White House announced that the Clintons had set up a special defense fund to pay for their legal expenses in the Whitewater case and the Paula Jones case and whatever other cases they wind up getting involved in once all the facts are known, not that I am specifically thinking here of the O.J. Simpson case, but you never know. The fund is accepting contributions of up to $1,000 per person per year, and it does accept contributions from lobbyists. This is interesting, because Bill Clinton has often righteously attacked lobbyists, and has even, as president, proposed a law that would prohibit lobbyists from making this very kind of contribution. So some press commentators, being their usual Negative Nelly selves, charged that the president was being a hypocrite.

This charge is totally unfair. We know this because an unnamed senior White House official was quoted in The Washington Post (motto: "An Official Who Has a Name Is an Official Who Is Not Worth Quoting") as saying, "One thousand dollars a year is not going to curry favor on behalf of any lobbyist." The unnamed official does not say how large a contribution WOULD curry favor, but as a citizen of this great republic, I'm darned proud to know that it's not just one lousy grand.

SPEAKING OF MONEY and lobbyists and a general atmosphere of hypocritical sleaze so thick you need a machete to hack your way through it, I decided to spend my second day in Washington on Capitol Hill, checking up on Congress. This is where the issue of health care will ultimately be decided under our system of government, in which the executive branch launches major policy initiatives, and Congress mutates them beyond recognition.

Over the past year, five different House and Senate committees took stabs at health care. Ultimately -- perhaps in your lifetime -- their efforts will all be smooshed together into some kind of compromise health care package, which most likely will also involve increased soybean subsidies and the construction of at least one comically unnecessary $23.7 million federal building in West Virginia named after Sen. Robert Byrd (D-Pork).

This is not to say that Congress has been working only on health care. No, Congress is always working on LOTS of things, including things that would never occur to people with actual jobs. For example, the morning I arrived on Capitol Hill, some congresspersons were meeting with actor Tom Selleck (R-Hunk) to plot strategy for passing a law in favor of goodness. Really. They are part of a group called Character Counts, which is promoting character education in the schools. They want to pass a law designating October 16-22 as "National Character Counts Week" and requesting that the president "issue a proclamation calling upon the people of the United States and interested groups to embrace {the} Six Core Elements of Character."

For the benefit of those of you who are bad, let me note that the Six Core Elements of Character, as stated in House Joint Resolution 366, are "trustworthiness; respect; responsibility; justice and fairness; caring; and civic virtue and citizenship." (This actually seems like eight Core Elements to me, but I also have a lot of trouble understanding the tax laws.)

I attended the kickoff of the Character Counts campaign in the Rayburn House Office Building. On hand, besides Tom Selleck, were several pro-virtue congresspersons; they told the press how important it is for the older generation to teach values to young people. A negative person could see some irony in this, inasmuch as these congresspersons belong to an institution that -- speaking of trustworthiness and responsibility -- every year votes to spend hundreds of billions of dollars more than it actually has, leaving it to today's young people to figure out how to pay the money back years from now, when the congresspersons have retired with pensions and medical benefits far more generous than anything a normal taxpayer could ever dream of, speaking of fairness. But in the interest of being positive, let me say that the Character Counts campaign is not basically a large steaming pile of bull doots, and I urge everyone to take whatever steps are necessary to embrace the Six Core Elements of Character during the week of October 16-22, which by the way also happens to be, by presidential proclamation, National Forest Products Week.

After leaving the Character Counts event I stopped in briefly on an extremely crowded Senate subcommittee hearing starring Steven Spielberg, who was testifying on hate. As far as I could tell, this event had nothing to do with any pending legislation; it was an "oversight hearing" on the Hate Crimes Statistics Act, which passed in 1990. I think the main idea was that, hey, if you have a chance to get the hottest director in Hollywood, you hold a hearing and draw a big crowd and make feel-good speeches. I personally see nothing wrong with this. Some experts feel that there are also psychological benefits to be gained from masturbation.

Spielberg told the committee that hate is bad. Sen. Paul Simon, who chaired the hearing, also weighed in at length on the badness of hate, as did, one by one, the half a dozen or so other senators who attended. They all said basically the same thing. Here are some phrases that you will never, ever hear spoken by a member of the U.S. Congress:

-- "All I want to say is that I agree with everybody else."

-- "I won't waste everybody's time by repeating the obvious."

-- "I have nothing substantive to add, so I'll just shut up."

-- "That goes for me too."

-- "Ditto."

Other entertainment celebrities who appeared live on Capitol Hill the week I was there were members of the rock group Pearl Jam, who testified against high ticket prices for rock concerts; and actor Dean Cain, stud-muffin star of the TV show "Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman," who appeared at a ceremony honoring student artists.

"The creativity each one of you have put into your artworks is tremendous," he stated.

For my tax dollar, the all-time best Capitol Hill event involving celebrities occurred back in 1985, when the House Democratic Task Force on Agriculture held a jam-packed hearing that featured testimony on the plight of the American farm family from -- I am not making this up -- Sissy Spacek, Jessica Lange and Jane Fonda. Technically, of course, these women are not members of struggling farm families: They are rich actresses. But they have all played members of struggling farm families in major motion pictures, which more than qualifies them to testify before a congressional task force. They were so sincere it made your teeth hurt. Both Lange and Fonda broke down crying, and thousands of photographs were taken. A genuine family-farm member could have set fire to herself on the Capitol steps and not have gotten half the press coverage.

UNFORTUNATELY, the day I checked in on Congress there were no celebrities participating in the health care debate. In fact most of the debate was going on behind closed doors, in those mystery rooms where policy is actually made. On this day, two of the key rooms were in the Capitol, where the Democratic and Republican senators were separately holding their weekly caucuses.

A crowd of several dozen reporters had gathered in the corridor outside the caucus rooms; these reporters were, in a word, desperate. They were attempting to cover a story that would be stupendously complex even if there were only one health care plan, and if all the major players would tell them honestly what was happening. But there were a number of plans, with new ones being formed at that moment; and different players were secretly making different deals regarding different parts of these different plans in different rooms all over town. So none of the reporters really knew what was going on, although they would all be expected to write authoritative stories for the next day's papers. Hence their desperation.

As senators emerged, one by one, from the caucuses, the reporters would instantly form dense clots around them, pressing close, trying to get them to reveal the latest health care developments. The first senator I saw was John Breaux of Louisiana, who announced -- I'm pretty sure I got this right -- that he was rejecting his own health care plan. Several reporters explained to me that Breaux and other Democrats were now waiting for a new plan, from Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee. They said Moynihan was introducing this plan with the specific intent of having it voted down by his committee.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because he wants to show that it can't pass," the reporters answered, as if that explained everything.

While I was trying to comprehend this, Sen. Bob Dole (R-Raptor) emerged from the caucus room, and it turned out that he had a new health care plan.

"Tell us about your plan," said a reporter. "It's very nice," said Dole.

(You think I'm making all this up, right?)

More senators emerged and were pounced on by reporters with health care questions. I found myself getting swept up in the spirit, pressing forward toward the center of the clot, writing down incomprehensible notes like " EMPLOYER MANDATE TRIGGER ." It was a media frenzy. If Lee Harvey Oswald had suddenly appeared in our midst, we would have asked him about health care.

One of the last senators to emerge was Majority Leader George Mitchell; the clot pounced on him for comments about Moynihan's plan, the one that everybody was eagerly awaiting because it was going to get voted down.

"I haven't seen the details, but I commend the chairman for his leadership," said Mitchell, in a fine demonstration of the veteran political leader's ability to say absolutely nothing on a moment's notice.

As Mitchell was leaving, somebody asked him about the Red Sox.

"As of seven days ago," he said, "they're 5 and 2."

I wrote that down; it was the only solid information I got that day.

THE NEXT DAY I went over to watch the Senate Finance Committee reject the Moynihan plan. The plan had finally been made available for public scrutiny. I got a copy, and after careful review I ascertained that it was 143 pages long. It felt like a solid plan.

Sen. Moynihan spoke for a while. He said his plan was excellent and did not mention that it was supposed to get voted down. Next to speak was Sen. Bob Packwood, who is technically a senator from Oregon, although he can never appear there in public because he'd be attacked by hundreds of angry women who claim he has sexually harassed them. He can only fly over the state at night in a fast jet, hurling press releases out the window. But in Washington he's still a major player. In Washington, you can be a major player even if you are in serious legal trouble, or, in the case of Sen. Strom Thurmond, dead.

Packwood spoke for a while about health care, noting, among many other points, that he had an uncle who once had a hernia. As he droned on, I looked at the vacant faces of the other senators and wondered what they think about during the endless hours they spend sitting in hearings while other senators are talking. Maybe they're actually playing a secret game, whereby they agree on a certain word ahead of time -- "hernia," for example -- and whichever one is able to use this word in proper context the greatest number of times gets to have a new naval base in his state.

After everyone had a chance to offer an opening drone, Moynihan announced that the committee was not going to vote on anything; it was going to spend the rest of the day in detailed droning. Sen. William Roth kicked it off, reading from a statement that everybody in the room already had a copy of.

"This is indeed a momentous occasion," he began. From all around the hearing room came the muted but distinct sound of eyelids fluttering shut. I decided to head over to the House side of Capitol Hill.

The hot action there was in the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which was working on its own health care plan. The first person I met when I entered the hearing room was a friendly man named Jeff Peterson, who told me that he's a lobbyist for "a lot of different causes." He had a sensational tan.

I asked him how it felt to belong to a profession that is constantly being compared -- often by the very politicians whose campaigns depend on lobbyists' contributions -- to pond scum.

"We give them money, and they take it, and then they vote against us and dump all over us," he said, summing up what sounds like a fun job. "Sometimes my mother calls me and says, 'What are you doing there?' "

Not that this has anything to do with pond scum, but one of the congresspersons on the Ways and Means Committee is Dan Rostenkowski (D-Toad), who I want to stress has not been convicted of anything. He has however, been accused by federal prosecutors of doing a number of things, including putting people on the federal payroll who did not do any actual work. What I want to know is, since when is THAT against the law? Haven't these prosecutors ever heard of, say, the Department of Agriculture?

Speaking of agriculture, the issue being debated by the Ways and Means Committee when I arrived was whether to pay for health care by jacking up tobacco taxes. This is part of an accelerating trend toward viewing smoking as an excellent way for the government to get money. The potential problem, of course, is that as the smokers kill themselves off, they'll be contributing less money to the government, which could put national health care in jeopardy. Some day the government might have to institute a new program, perhaps headed by Tom Selleck, to recruit new smokers. And if you don't believe the government would do something as silly as that, then you probably also don't believe the government is spending millions of dollars to maintain a strategic helium reserve in case we experience a sudden resurgence in the need for military dirigibles.

I FRANKLY DON'T KNOW what the House Ways and Means Committee did about tobacco taxes. I left before anything was decided. I also don't know what happened to Sen. Moynihan's health care plan, or Sen. Dole's plan, or any of the other plans; nor do I know what ultimately became of National Character Counts Week, the dollar, Korea or any other issue I have mentioned in this story except the Boston Red Sox, who as of this writing have a 49-51 record. My problem is that, like many U.S. citizens, possibly including you, I simply do not have the civic dedication and the attention span required to even begin to understand any aspect of the federal government, and especially not such a humongously complex aspect as health care. But I truly do believe, based on my brief stay in Washington, that our elected leaders are working very hard, and I am certain that, whatever health care plan they ultimately decide on, two things will be true:

1. It will be the best health care plan that they, as a group, are capable of devising for us.

2. It will not apply to them

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