FOR A TIME, I thought I would do a column about a man named Fletcher Cohn, who is, in his own way, something of a personification of Washington. I met Cohn one day when I went to make a speech and it was while he was before the group, announcing the date of the next meeting and who the next speaker would be, that someone came up to me and whispered that Fletcher Cohn was the guy who made the Carter company take the word "Liver" off their "Little Liver Pills." In Washington, this is considered honest work.
I knew something about the Carter case, knw, for instance, it took something like 13 years to settle and that it went to the Supreme Court twice and it was all about how the government contended that Carter's Little Liver Pills might be made by Carter's and they might be little and they were certainly pills, but they had nothing to do with the liver. Cohn was the lawyer for the Federal Trade Commission on that case and it was, in a way, something of a life's work. He put it this way: "That was my claim to fame, I guess."
Well, Cohn is retired now and living in Silver Spring and what he does to occupy his time now is volunteer at the Washington Hebrew Congregation and the Jewish Social Agency and for the Masons. He is a nice, pleasant man of 70 who retired seven years ago as assistant general counsel of the Federal Trade Commission and maybe it was because I liked him that I never got around to saying in a column that I thought there was something silly about what he had done - 13 years to get the word "liver" deleted.
So I went on to other things and then I lost the little notebook in which I used to keep column ideas and with it, so to speak, went Fletcher Cohn. I didn't think of him until two weeks ago when I switched on the radio one morning expecting to hear some nice classical music and instead I got the Senate hearings on Laetrile. By the time I realized what it was I was listening to, I was in my morning stupor and I left the radio were it was, sort of hearing and not listening - verbal background music.
Then the words started to come through and I started to listen and what some of the people were saying was that Leatrile is not dangerous and therefore it should be sold to people. That is sort of the bottom-line argument when it comes to Laetrile. It started out as a cancer cure and then it became a preventative and now maybe it's a vitamin, but the bottom line is that regardless of what it is, it's not dangerous. And, the argument goes if it is not dangerous why can't people who think it either cures cancer or prevents cancer use it?
Well, there is appeal in that argument and it appealed to me at first because I, like a lot of people, think there is too much government regulation in this world, especially when it is directed at attempting to save people from themselves. You have only to look around to see that this is a hopeless task. You have only to look around to see the fantastic sale of astrology magazines and the growth of various religions and the business done by whatever system that this week will be proclaimed by the news magazines as the latest way to relax. Or get thin. Or stop smoking. Or become happy. Or have tremendous sex. i yearn for the new system that will do away with new systems.
The thing is, of course, that a lot of people have been thinking this way, concluding that the government ought to back off a little - deregulate whenever possible. There is probably something to this notion and it has become something of a movement. It has a name and a bill in the Congress and it is called medical freedom of choice. The bill has 113 cosponsors in Congress and what it would do, simply stated, is allow the sale of drugs that are proved safe. They would not, you see, actually have to do anything - they just would have to be safe.
Well, there is something to be said for this - something about how cumbersome the process is now and how the government may be stifling basic research - but the bill would in the end legalize the sale of drugs like Leatrile. It is, though, just part of the movement. Eleven states have already legalized the sale of Laetrile, with legalization under consideration in other states and the trend is marching to the banner of freedom of choice.
But freedom of choice is based on getting information and information, especially when it comes to medical matters, is hard to come by. Most of us are not medical experts and we are in no position to evaluate conflicting claims. That is the job of the government and that is why it is not asking too much for the government to insist that a drug not only be safe but also do something worthwhile. If there is to be a choice, it should be between two drugs that do something - not one that does and another that purports to, but doesn't. That kind of choice used to be called a con.
So what we are talking about here is honesty and calling things by their proper names - frauds or drugs or whatever. And it was while I was thinking of this that I thought of Fletcher Cohn and his 13 year fight against Carter Little Liver Pills and I completely changed my mind about what he had done. He had fought for truth.
In Washington, this should still be considered honest work.