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Opinion: Giving Nixon His Due on Health Care Reform

Mar 25, 2010 – 3:35 PM
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Ben Stein

Ben Stein Opinion Editor

(March 25) -- Attention must be paid.

All eyes have been on Washington in the past year as the parties debated President Barack Obama's shifting versions of national health care. On Tuesday, after a highly questionable series of parliamentary maneuvers, President Obama signed into "law" his health care plan.

Ben Stein

Bebeto Matthews / AP
Ben Stein was a speechwriter for President Nixon.
With some considerable reason, he noted that health care for all is an idea whose time has come. (His plan still leaves more than 20 million not insured, but let that be.) And, with some justification, most of the media rejoiced that national health care had arrived for people with low incomes, with pre-existing conditions, without jobs, with impoverished employers.

To call Barack Obama's response to the passage (however questionably executed ) of this bill "triumphalist" is like calling Mount Everest "tall."

But among the glorying, there was little or no mention of my former boss, Richard M. Nixon, and this was a monstrous wrong, one of an innumerable number of wrongs directed at Mr. Nixon.

The flat truth is that in February 1974, with the hounds of hell baying at him about Watergate, with a national trial by shortage under way after the Arab Oil Embargo, with the economy in extremely rocky shape, and with large Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, Republican Richard M. Nixon submitted to Congress a national health care bill in many ways more comprehensive than what Mr. Obama achieved.

Mr. Nixon's health care plan would have covered all employed people by giving combined state and federal subsidies to employers. It would have covered the poor and the unemployed by much larger subsidies. It would have encouraged health maintenance organizations. It would have banned exclusions for pre-existing conditions and not allowed limits on spending for each insured.

I know a bit about this because I, your humble servant, as a 29-year-old speech writer, wrote the message to Congress sending up the bill.

In many ways, the bill was far more "socialist" than what Mr. Obama has proposed. It certainly involved a far larger swath of state and federal government power over health care. Please remember that this was 36 years ago, when middle-class Americans still had some slight faith that government was on their side.

My point is not whether or not Mr. Nixon's plan was better than Mr. Obama's. In fact, they have many points in common.

My only point is that if you want to call someone a visionary, if you want to call someone compassionate, if you want to note that someone was a foe of inequality and a friend to mercy, think of Richard Nixon, with a host of problems of his own the likes of which Mr. Obama cannot imagine, reaching out to the poor and the uninsured to help.

The plan, of course, was killed dead by the Democrats, led by Edward Kennedy, who later regretted what he had done. Still, attention must be paid to a prophet without honor in his own land.

Ben Stein is an economist, lawyer, actor, comedian, public speaker and university teacher, and he was a speechwriter for Presidents Nixon and Ford. He has also written several books, the latest of which is "The Little Book of Bulletproof Investing," written with Phil DeMuth.


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